Race and gender—hot topics, even without the recent primary election that pitted a black man against a white woman. With it, they’re incendiary. But even a brief look at the historical record tells us how much the past is parent to the present. The conflicting claims of race and gender, the arguments about who has been this society’s greatest victim, whose issues are most immediately in need of redress, have been going on for a long time, most notably dating back to the post–Civil War era when the Suffragists confronted this question: Should they support passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would give black men the right to vote while leaving women out?
In language that reflected the heat of the issue, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been a strong and consistent voice for the abolition of slavery, told her followers that it was “a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.” Further, she argued, women voters of “wealth, education, and refinement” were needed to counteract the effect of former slaves whose “pauperism, ignorance, and degradation” could prove a danger to the American political system.
A century later, when President Lyndon Johnson expanded an earlier affirmative action order to include women as well as men of color, women and blacks once again found themselves in competition for the jobs that were newly open to them. And now again, we’ve seen race and gender cross swords in the most passionately contested political primary campaign in history. For those of us for whom the causes of gender and racial equality are inextricably linked, it has meant difficult and often painful choices. No matter who won, we lost something.
Yet even as I write those words, a “Yes, but . . .” springs to mind as I recall some of the struggles of the early years—what we felt then, how it looks now. I remember the outrage when the famous Virginia Slims cigarette ad appeared in the late 1960s. It featured a smiling—and, of course, beautiful—young woman smoking a cigarette, with a tagline reading, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Never mind that we who had been struggling for gender equality didn’t think the right to kill ourselves with cigarette smoke was great progress; we weren’t in the mood to celebrate because we didn’t think we’d come nearly far enough. Now, looking back, I can see that there was a certain truth to the line. We had come a long way from where we started, just as the civil rights struggle brought important, if not fully realized, gains for black Americans. And it’s even more true now than it was then.
It was only a little more than forty years ago—well within the living memory of many of us—that the U.S. Supreme Court declared the statutes banning mixed-race marriage (laws that had been on the books since 1661) unconstitutional. In that same decade, fede...
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