Herb Rothschild Jr.: Gender bias endures

When I was active with the American Civil Liberties Union, I attended two of its biennial conventions — in 1968 and 1970. Those were turbulent years in the life of our nation. An extraordinary number of social change movements were occurring, and the ACLU was involved in all of them. So the conventions were exciting learning experiences for me. My most memorable moment at the 1970 convention came during a discussion of women’s rights.

Pauli Murray was there. Murray (1910-1985) was both a lawyer and an Episcopal priest. Educated at Howard University, Hunter College, and Cal-Berkeley, she was denied entry to law school at the University of North Carolina because she was black and to Harvard Law because she was a woman. Yale admitted her, and she was the first woman to whom it awarded a doctor of jurisprudence degree. Murray earned distinction as an advocate of civil rights and women’s rights. Thurgood Marshall called her 1950 study of states’ laws on race the bible of the civil rights movement. She served on the 1961 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and in 1965 help found the National Organization of Women.

I didn’t know any of this when she rose to speak. What I heard her say was that she had experienced more prejudice as a woman than as an African American. That stunned me. Because I had grown up in Louisiana and returned there to work in 1965, I understood racism, both society’s and my own. That we were at least equally infected with sexism was a revelation. It was another endemic prejudice I needed to confront.

Which brings me to what I perceive as a disproportion between the enthusiasm of progressives for electing our nation’s first black president and for electing our nation’s first female president. During his 2008 campaign Obama may have sounded a bit more like a change agent than Clinton does now, but he didn’t give us much reason to expect a lot of that from him and we never got much. Still, it was momentous for our nation that he assumed the presidency, and it will be equally momentous if she does.

Compared to our disproportionate enthusiasm, those on the right have displayed an equal, if not greater, antipathy toward electing a woman than a black. Nor, I think, can that antipathy be attributed mainly toward Clinton as an individual with significant flaws. Given the character and record of her opponent and given the gender gap, which will surely be the widest in the history of presidential elections, we are justified in attributing that antipathy largely to male (and some female) envy and fear of a powerful woman.

I’m glad I supported Sanders in the primaries. His strong showing pulled Clinton farther from the center than she otherwise would have come. But are the stated policy differences that now exist between her and him — and certainly between her and Obama — sufficiently great to explain why more excitement isn’t building toward the election of our first female president?

A renewed sensitivity to white privilege and how much we whites still take it for granted is part of the second Civil Rights Movement in which we are now engaged. Might this also be the time for both men and women, but especially men, to renew our individual and corporate self-examination about our attitudes toward female equality?

— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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