04/07/2008 01:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Standing Sexual Politics on Its Head

Nicholas Kristof's article on sexists vs. racists in Sunday's New York Times illuminates the guilt many women feel for not supporting Hillary Clinton. One friend recently stated that she did not see how any woman could not be for Clinton. Does that mean if I were a British subject, I would have had to vote for Margaret Thatcher, or if Elizabeth Dole had won the nomination, I would have had to become a Republican?

The pressure to vote for gender rather than policy and personal substance reminds me once again of the Scottsboro case which turned sexual politics on its head for half the twentieth century. In Scottsboro, two white sometime prostitutes accused nine young black men of a rape that never occurred. The unsubstantiated charge of rape by white women against black youths and the subsequent and speedy death sentences meted out were not exactly unusual in Depression-era Alabama. What was news was the support the two women found in the South and the ire they aroused in the North.

The International Labor Defense, which was the legal arm of the Communist Party, immediately swung into action to defend the boys. One of their chief tactics was defaming the girls.

"Who ever heard of raping a prostitute?" the poet Langston Hughes, who knew something about prejudice first hand, asked.

"Those boys are going to burn for what they could have had for two bits," good northern liberals joked. The same men who under other circumstances would have defended the girls as victims of social and economic injustice and probably tried to unionize them in the bargain did their best to vilify them.

Meanwhile, southerners, who normally would have dismissed the girls as loose women, vagrants, or worse, championed them as examples of southern white womanhood. They may be women of easy virtue, the men said, but they're white women of easy virtue. More respectable southern women took up collections for them and bought them clothes.

North and South (then the equivalent of red states and blue states) took more predictable, but not necessarily more rational approaches to the nine young men accused. In June, 1931, the New York Times ran an article stating that while many in the North believed the South wanted to send the youths to the electric chair simply because they were black, many in the South believed those in the North wanted to save them for precisely the same reason, regardless of guilt or innocence.

It is naive, of course, to think that even the best-intentioned of us, black or white, male or female, can look at Clinton or Obama and see not a white woman or a black man but a candidate. As the psychological tests Kristof cited show, we all have our unstated, our unconscious prejudices. But what we can try to avoid is our tendency to try to turn candidates, or individuals, into emblems of political expediency.