Dixiecrats' Revenge: How Women Co-Opted the Civil-Rights Movement
Carlson, Allan, The American Conservative
BLACK MEN cross swords with white feminists at their peril. That's the hard lesson Barack Obama has learned over the last three months.
In Iowa, Senator Obama claimed the support of 35 percent of Democratic female caucus-goers, compared to 30 percent for Hillary Clinton. "Change" and charisma trumped experience, the pundits said, and the Democrats seemed on the brink of giving their presidential nomination to an African-American man. Indeed, when Obama, wife Michelle, and their two children appeared in Des Moines on caucus night in front of his wildly enthusiastic supporters, they almost shape-shifted into the Jack Kennedy family of 1960, with one history-making difference.
Then came the New Hampshire debate in which Senator Clinton reminded the audience that electing the first female president would be "change," too. Democratic women began to shake off the African-American's spell. When Obama, in slightly mocking tone, told Clinton that people "like you well enough," women were offended. Her tears in the Portsmouth coffee shop clinched the deal. Late polls showed Obama again prevailing among women, but Clinton won 45 percent of the final female vote, compared to only 30 percent for the senator from Illinois.
Analyst Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center explained this shift partly by "the long-standing pattern of pre-election polls overstating support for black candidates among white voters." When the conflict heated up again over Martin Luther King's role in the civil-rights movement, Senator Clinton remarked, "I don't think this campaign is about gender, and I sure hope it isn't about race."
Since that time, the contest for the nomination has further polarized the Democratic Party: African-Americans, particularly the men, have rallied to Obama; older white women have kept Clinton in the game. Subtle race-baiting by would-be First Gentlemen Bill Clinton and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro has only aggravated the divide. Clearly, the specific relationship between the African-American male and the white feminist within the Democratic "big tent" needs more attention.
The theoretical basis for this part of the Democratic coalition divide probably lies in Gunnar Myrdal's classic 1944 study of black-white relations in the United States, An American Dilemma. An appendix to this book, authored by his arch-feminist wife, Alva, argued that American women, locked by convention into the roles of homemaker and fulltime mother, suffered an oppression similar to that of the Negroes of her day. As the civil-rights campaign gained momentum around 1960, young, idealistic white women from Vassar, Smith, and so on swarmed into the South, eager to fight the common foe: the patriarchal white male.
In practice, however, the coalition didn't work very well. As black-power advocate and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael famously explained, "the position of women in SNCC is prone." Historians have shown how many of the disillusioned and angry women who went South abandoned the fight for racial justice to help launch a renewed feminist campaign.
They quickly had their revenge. It came on Feb. 8, 1964, when the American sociopolitical order underwent a seismic shift. The occasion was a debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. The aim of the bill on that Saturday morning--as drafted at the Lyndon Johnson White House--was to end discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin" in the areas of voting, public accommodations and education, federally assisted programs, and private employment. "Sex" was not on the list.
Reading between the lines, it was clear that the provision on "private employment"--Title VII--would renew an old New Deal goal from the 1930s: to remove those job barriers resting on race prejudice that prevented African-American men from being good fathers, husbands, and breadwinners. Advocates used an argument that would surface again a year later in the Moynihan Report: since the traditional family home was the basis of American civilization, full citizenship for black Americans required shoring up the economic side of their faltering family system. Disproportionately characterized by matriarchy, female-headed households, and illegitimacy, "the Negro-American family" needed to be reconfigured on the breadwinner/homemaker model prevailing among whites. This was the road to racial equality.
Yet the white segregationists in the House, their backs to the wall, were resolved on a desperate action. Dixiecrat Howard Smith of Virginia rose on that February day and, with a broad smile, proposed that the word "sex" be added to the list of prohibited discriminations under Title VII. To the howls of his colleagues, he read a letter he had received from a woman protesting the excess number of American females relative to the count of American men, as revealed by the 1960 census:
Just why the Creator would set up such an imbalance of spinsters, shutting off the 'right' of every female to have a husband of her own is, of course, known only to nature. But I am sure you will agree that this is a grave injustice to womankind and something the Congress and President Johnson should take immediate steps to correct.
After his little joke, though, Smith moved to his real point. "Now I am very serious about this amendment," he told his colleagues. "I think we all recognize ... that all throughout industry women are discriminated against in that ... they do not get as high compensation for their work as do the majority [sic] sex." To bring the matter closer to his fellow politicians' hearts, he added, "I just want to remind you here that in this election year it is pretty near half of the voters in this country that are affected, so you had better sit up and take notice."
Some think that Smith's proposal was simply an effort--unsuccessful in the end--to advance a "killer amendment" to the whole bill. Others suspect that Smith actually saw a devious way to twist the Civil Rights bill in order to undermine its central purpose and thus keep the black population in a form of submission.
Whatever the case, his Dixiecrat colleagues quickly added their support. J. Russell Tuten of Georgia said that as "a man, which places me in the minority and makes me a second class citizen--and the fact that I am white and from the South--I look forward to claiming my rights under this legislation." And L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina praised the proposed change for "making it possible for the white Christian woman" to gain the same consideration for employment as "colored" people.
In retrospect, it is clear that half a century of political reforms aimed at buttressing "the traditional family" and built on the ideal of a family-sustaining wage for men hung in the balance. Emanuel Celler, Democrat from Manhattan, the very liberal chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and floor leader for the Civil Rights bill, rose to challenge Smith. Notably, he argued for the natural inequality of woman and man:
You know, the French have a phrase for it when they speak of women and men: 'vive la difference.' I think the French are right. Imagine the upheaval that would result from the adoption of blanket language requiring total [sexual] equality. Would male citizens be justified in insisting that women share with them the burdens of compulsory military service? What would become of traditional family relationships? What about alimony? ... Would fathers rank equally with mothers in the right of custody to children? ... This is the entering wedge, an amendment of this sort.
Congressman Celler also noted that the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor opposed this amendment, arguing that sex discrimination involved "problems significantly different" from the racial sort.
Edith Green, a Democratic congresswoman from Oregon, attacked Smith's amendment as an attempt to "jeopardize" the primary purpose of the Civil Rights bill: "For every discrimination that has been made against a woman in this country there has been 10 times as much discrimination against the Negro. ... Whether we want to admit it or not, the main purpose of this legislation today is to try to end the discrimination ... against Negroes."
But the equity feminists, then mostly hibernating on the Republican side of Congress, sensed their extraordinary, if peculiar, opportunity. Congresswoman Katharine St. George, a Republican from New York, suggested that the foes of the "sex" amendment still saw women as "chattels." She added, "Why should women be denied equality of opportunity? Why should women be denied equal pay for equal work?" Catharine May, a Republican from Washington, raised the deep concern of the feminist National Woman's Party over the effect of an unamended Title VII on "the white, native-born American woman of Christian religion." Democrat Martha Griffiths of Michigan cited the Alva Myrdal essay in An American Dilemma as proof of white male perfidy.
This coalition of white feminists and Dixiecrat segregationists carried the day on a vote of 168 to 133; discrimination in employment on the basis of "sex" would be a federal crime. Two days later, the House approved the Civil Rights Act, as amended. The measure went to the Senate, where Hubert Humphrey pushed the measure through unchanged, throttling a Southern filibuster.
At first blush, it looked like the black male/white feminist coalition had triumphed over The Man. But it quickly grew apparent that a measure meant to enhance the employment prospects of African-American males had been hijacked by the feminist cause. White women outnumbered black men by ten to one, and the former group had huge educational advantages and vastly greater access to good lawyers and other legal levers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, initially intended to deliver good jobs and stable traditional homes to African-Americans, was quickly swamped by the complaints of white women. Black men went to the back of the line. Over the decades that followed, affirmative action under Title VII nearly doubled the real wages of white women. In comparison, African-American men found their real wages relatively stagnant.
Might this be just what the Dixiecrats intended? They never said. Surely, though, this change in the scope and purpose of the Civil Rights Act is one cause of the high male unemployment rate, the distressing crime levels, and the disordered homes still afflicting a majority of African-Americans.
Now, in the greatest test to date of rival "affirmative actions," a black male squares off against a white feminist in the quest for the White House. If history is any guide, I predict that the Dixiecrats will win again.
Allan Carlson is president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois. His latest book is Third Ways, published by ISI Books.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Dixiecrats' Revenge: How Women Co-Opted the Civil-Rights Movement. Contributors: Carlson, Allan - Author. Magazine title: The American Conservative. Volume: 7. Issue: 7 Publication date: April 7, 2008. Page number: 17+. © 2009 The American Conservative LLC. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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