For the past few weeks the nation has been engaged in a truly bizarre debate over who is better qualified for the presidency -- Barack Obama or Sarah Palin. It doesn't matter that he is a candidate for president, she for vice president. Or that he won his party's nomination through a hard-fought primary that energized millions of new voters and raised America's standing abroad. Suddenly, in the first weeks of September, he was last year's celebrity, she the new star. Plucked from obscurity in Alaska, she was the new Obama even though no one outside her home state had ever checked her name on a ballot.
Black man. White woman. The only possible basis for comparison is that neither Barack Obama nor Sarah Palin is a white male.
John McCain is in the unenviable position of being a white man in a year when the electorate wants something different. Picking Palin was a clever move. It captured some of the excitement of the Democratic primary for the Republican ticket and ostensibly marked McCain as a person in touch with the times. But whatever his intention, the entrance of a feisty white woman tightened an already troubled tangle between race and sex.
Race and sex have been the uneasy twins of American politics from the earliest years of the American Republic to today. It can hardly have been otherwise. Since wives and slaves were both defined as dependents within male-led households, an assault on one form of patriarchy often led to another. Gender issues animated anti-slavery and pro-slavery discourse in the years leading up to the Civil War, and in the late nineteenth-century helped to justify a retreat from racial equality. The advances the nation has made in the past half century have obscured these connections, but they persist.
For a time during the Democratic primary, it looked like voters might be able to consider Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as individuals with different life experiences and different political talents. Voters admitted they liked both candidates and were having difficulty making up their minds. But soon there were charges of racism and sexism, if not from the candidates themselves, from their surrogates.
As a historian, I watched all this with trepidation. When Clinton supporters declared themselves unable to back Obama, I thought of the bitter division in the women's rights movement after the Civil War when the Fifteenth Amendments gave the vote to freed slaves but not to women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton accused her former allies of opening "the constitutional door just wide enough to let the black man pass in." The rift persisted for decades. In the early twentieth century, some suffragists supported Jim Crow laws in order to win southern support for their cause.
Race and sex are siblings, but they are not identical twins. Still, there have been occasions of remarkable collaboration. In 1964, a conservative southern congressman, hoping to defeat a comprehensive Civil Rights act, introduced an amendment barring discrimination in employment on the basis of sex as well as race. He assumed his addition was so ridiculous it would induce northern Congressmen to vote "no." Congresswoman Martha Griffiths from Michigan seized the opportunity. Working with allies on both sides of the aisle she helped secure the law's passage. Her speech on the floor of the House warned that a "vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter, or his sister." In this case, advocates for racial and sexual equality worked together with results that changed all our lives.
Not everyone is happy. Some Americans see progress in job advertisements that say "women and minorities are encouraged to apply." Others see new forms of competition, not only between white woman and minorities, but perhaps especially between white men and everybody else. I have been struck at how often defenders of the Republican ticket have invoked the metaphor of a job search. They say Obama's resume is thin, and they want to compare his experience as a community organizer with her job as a small town mayor. In doing so, they are connecting the presidential race to all the unresolved issues in the American workplace over equal opportunity legislation, though in the process they are making sure that the ultimate winner is a seasoned white male.
Gender alone cannot explain why women in certain parts of the country refuse to vote for Obama even when they agree with him on the issues. Race has to be part of the equation, as the McCain campaign acknowledged when they ran a television ad that accused a sinister-looking Obama of promoting sex education in kindergarten. Exploiting sexual fears to cement white power is one of the oldest and most effective devices in American politics. "Sex before reading?" the announcer asked, as though Barack Obama were Willie Horton.
Obama may be right when he says the American people are too smart to fall for such tactics. Yet the intersections of race and sex are deeply rooted in American politics. If we are going to move forward, we need to acknowledge that and somehow find new ways of imagining the conflicts that divide us.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is the author of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.