09 January 2008

The Primaries: Yes, Gender Matters...A LOT

Let’s put aside the question of whom to support in the Democratic primaries. Instead, let’s look at some of the most challenging issues facing our democracy that were raised by Gloria Steinem, co-founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, in an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times (1/8/08), "Women are Never Front-Runners."

They include:

“Why aren’t we ready to break the gender barrier?”

“The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent, and can only be uprooted together.” And finally,

We have “a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers, and paper degrees.”

Yes, money and pedigree are on the list, too, even though this country likes to blur our own class structures by highlighting the opportunities our free market system has to offer “everyone.” Class, like race and gender, creates significant barriers to equal and meaningful participation in our democratic process.

So, if our commitment to progressive social justice is real, we must at once address race and gender and class as we strive for an equitable and inclusive democracy.

At the Ms. Foundation, we support over 200 community-based and national advocacy organizations across the United States that represent, and work on behalf of, low-income women and women of color. Through our 35 years of support for women’s full participation in our society, we have seen over and over again that our grantees have powerful solutions to the myriad crises facing communities nationwide. But while fighting for policy and culture changes that benefit us all, they continue to face reinforcing barriers of racism, sexism and poverty–making them the most marginalized citizens in our democratic process.

Just take Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing disaster in the Gulf Coast. Low-income women of color were disproportionately affected by the storms and subsequent housing, health care and unemployment crises. But while their experiences make them uniquely positioned to devise and implement policy solutions, they remain largely excluded from decision-making tables.

In her op-ed, Gloria Steinem addresses the barriers women face by asking us to imagine an African American woman—with the same credentials as Barack Obama—running for president. “Could [she] be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?” Ms. Steinem asks. Not likely. That’s because, she goes on to say, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.”

Let's now add class to the mix. Let's imagine a low-income, African American woman, single mother of three, running for public office. A woman with scarce resources and time, yet whose knowledge, leadership and commitment would drive significant policy changes that would benefit all members of her community, city, state or country.

The fact is, while small numbers of low-income women of color have won a seat at policy tables —our grantees are a testament to that—most continue to be excluded from decision-making processesand at great cost to us all. So as we take a look at the field of presidential candidates before us, let's not forget that the combined, often inextricably linked barriers of race, gender and class persist nationwide. Just how deep and pernicious these barriers are should be of great concern to everyone if we hope to realize a just and truly participatory democracy in 2008 and beyond.

By Sara K. Gould
President & CEO