Hendrik Herzberg needs a History Lesson

This morning, I read Hendrik Herzberg’s article, “Exhilaration” in the comment section of the New Yorker, in which he describes the historic primary battle between Barack Obama and Hilary Rodham Clinton. In general, it’s a pretty fair treatment, but he sure needs a more nuanced history of gender and race in the United States. According to Herzberg:

“Competitions among grievances do not ennoble, and both Clinton and Obama strove to avoid one; but it does not belittle the oppressions of gender to suggest that in America the oppressions of race have cut deeper. Clinton’s supporters would sometimes note that the Constitution did not extend the vote to women until a half century after it extended it to men of color. But there is no gender equivalent of the nightmare of disenfranchisement, lynching, apartheid, and peonage that followed Reconstruction, to say nothing of “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil” that preceded it. Nor has any feminist leader shared the fate of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Clinton spoke on Saturday of “women in their eighties and nineties, born before women could vote.” But Barack Obama is only in his forties, and he was born before the Voting Rights Act redeemed the broken promise of the Fifteenth Amendment.”

Now, there may be some truth to this, but I find there are two things wrong with this paragraph:

1. He assumes all women are white — what about the African-American women who faced the threat of rape by white men, who would go unpunished since all black women were considered “sluts” and “temptresses” who deserved what they got, even if they were five years old? Or the Native American women who were forced on a death march to “Indian territory” by Andrew Jackson, only to be thrown off that land half a century later?

2. I would consider the English common law practice of “femme covert” or legal death of women upon marriage to be equivalent to debt peonage at the very least. Women lost control of their property, their children, and even their bodies. Also, until women were denied access to many educational and professional opportunities, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Title IX. Women who fought for suffrage and equal rights were imprisoned, labeled “insane,” and trivialized, even by men on the left.

Anyone else care to contribute?

7 thoughts on “Hendrik Herzberg needs a History Lesson

  1. KC–thanks for this. I read Hertzberg yesterday, and remain amazed at the breathtaking level of contempt for Hillary Clinton that the male-dominated mainstream press has, as well its simplistic understanding of race, gender, and history. I sort of agree with the point he’s trying to make here, and I posted on it myself back in January (that the Fourteenth Amendment wasn’t honored for a century), but I really can’t take his smug lecturing about the importance of Civil Rights versus women’s rights.

    One reason I think the mainstream press are so contemptuous of women’s rights and feminism is that they’re overwhelmingly white, male, and privileged, and their wives, daughters, and women friends are overwhelmingly white and privileged, too. Therefore, they don’t percieve that their wealthy wives, daughters who attend private colleges and universities, and privileged female colleagues are “in need” of feminism. In their narrow, provincial, ruling-class world, feminism did everything it needed to do–never mind the immigrant women and women of color who work as janitors, security guards, nannies, and housekeepers in their homes and in their workplaces. I guess they only see “ladies,” and not the working-class women who make their lives easier.

  2. I’d say Herzberg is largely right, if only for the reason that in the United States today black men in particular are treated as disposable, excess population, with extremely high rates of incarceration. Economically marginalized, they are continuously fed into the nation’s prison-industrial complex.

    As for the obviously accurate observation that not all women are white, part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the civil rights movement was largely led by black men, and the feminism movement largely by white women. Both movements have had their blind spots.

  3. And let’s not forget: The corollary of “all the women are white” is “all the blacks are men.”

    Good grief.

  4. Good grief, Hertzberg has to play up the hierarchy of oppressions. Granted, some played into that during the Clinton/Obama fiasco. Why should WOC, POC and feminist WOC, pro-feminist POC or any other feminist or person have to list the many ways in which they have been oppressed in order to gain legitimacy? Women of all races and ethnicities have been the subjects and objects of misogyny and sexism since the beginning of time. It plays out in specific ways and the specifics are important. I know I’m saying nothing new, but it’s not a competition Hendrik.

    Thanks for this post!

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