“Gender,”writes Gloria Steinem on the op-ed page of the Jan. 8 New York Times, “is probably the most restricting force in American life.” That is incorrect. Poverty is the most restricting force in American life. It’s become somewhat unfashionable to point this out, but I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Given the choice between being born poor and being born female, which would you choose?
Steinem’s occasion for making this wildly obtuse statement is the New Hampshire primary, which Hillary Clinton will likely lose to Barack Obama, a black man. Steinem’s column can be read either as a desperate last-ditch appeal on Hillary’s behalf or (more plausibly) as an anticipatory complaint that sexism did Hillary in. “I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest,” Steinem writes, but her enshrinement of gender as the No. 1 obstacle to the pursuit of happiness in the United States gives lie to that. So does her remarkably petty observation:
Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).
Let me be clear: It would be insane to vote for either Obama or Clinton based on which candidate belonged to the more-victimized group. But if gender and race were to compete for second place in the victimhood sweepstakes—poverty, as I noted, has a lock on first place—I would have to call it for race, if only because 26 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty line, compared with 14 percent of American women.
There are, of course, many noneconomic varieties of societal prejudice to which even the wealthiest and most powerful women are subject. It’s a near certainty, for instance, that the two idiots (both male) who shouted “Iron my shirts!” at Clinton during a New Hampshire appearance on Jan. 7 receive a lower annual income than the candidate they were jeering at. Even the poorest male doesn’t have to put up with this type of moronic insult. And yes, the male-dominated media doesn’t take sexism as seriously as it should. I endorse wholeheartedly my Slate colleague Meghan O’Rourke’s observation that USA Today hedged its description of the incident in its headline, “Clinton Responds To Seemingly Sexist Shouts.” Seemingly? What other intent was possible? Had the two men shouted, “Shine my shoes!” at Obama, USA Today wouldn’t have dared run the headline, “Obama Responds To Seemingly Racist Shouts.”
Even so, I can’t rank this sort of petty annoyance alongside material want. Physical abuse and rape? Yes, these can be more unendurable than poverty. But Hillary has not suffered either of these. Her husband abused her emotionally by conducting a flagrant extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky inside their very home, but Steinem never took President Bill Clinton to task for it. Quite the contrary; as my late wife, Marjorie Williams, wrote at the time, Steinem and most other prominent feminists bent over backwards to defend Bill’s feminist bona fides. “That’s not bending over backwards; that’s being sensible,” Steinem protested. “Having said that, if Clinton had raped women, beaten up Hillary—real private sins would not be forgiven, no matter what the value of the public behavior.” Even Steinem, then, would not appear to consider lesser male slights especially grave.
I can’t let pass Steinem’s parenthetical observation (quoted above) that women preceded blacks in the boardroom only when the women happened to be “obedient family members.” If Steinem wants to condescend to Katharine Graham, former chairman of the Washington Post Co. (my employer), that’s her business. But how on earth can she square that with her assertion, later in the column, that Hillary enjoys “an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House”? Hillary, you’ll recall, held the post of “president’s wife.” She was in no position to operate independently of her husband. If that doesn’t make you an “obedient family member,” I don’t know what does. Steinem was willing to torture logic on the Clintons’ behalf a decade ago; she’s willing to do the same today.