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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

An historic election is shaping up to be a surprisingly competitive one. The first truly viable African-American presidential candidate came bouncing out of virtually all-white Iowa with a convincing lead, only to be bested at the next stop by the competitor with the potential to become the first woman to lead this nation. And that leads some to ask, which is the more powerful force in American life, race or gender?

That's the provocative question writer and social activist Gloria Steinem has been pondering. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, she came to the conclusion that, quote, gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.

We're going to have two conversations about this. In a few minutes, we'll be joined by a diverse panel of some of these countries most prominent news analysts. They also happen to be women.

Bur first, the writer, social critic and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. She's joining us from New York.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. GLORIA STEINEM (Writer, Social Critic): Oh, and thank you for having this discussion. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, first of all, I know you don't write the headlines. Most writers don't. But the headline of your piece was, women are never front-runners. Well now that Senator Clinton has had a convincing victory in New Hampshire, you think you might have been wrong?

Ms. STEINEM: I think it's too soon to know, don't you? Because really, what that contest did was to keep the contest open, which I think is a good thing for everybody.

MARTIN: What do you make of her win?

Ms. STEINEM: I think probably - we would have had to look into the hearts and minds of each voter. But it does seem to me that the question of experience and who is going to contend best with the mess in Washington left by Bush most immediately was probably had a great deal to do with it. According to post-election interviews, that was the main thing, and the second thing was that she allowed herself to be more authentic, and people were less concerned that she was somehow artificial.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your piece. You start by suggesting that a woman with Barack Obama's biography would never have gotten so far. You conclude, as I said earlier, that gender is probably the most restricting force in American life. And you also say that the sex barrier is not taken as seriously as the racial one is. Why do you say that?

Ms. STEINEM: Well, I think that the last part about the sex barrier not being taken seriously is the most important part. I think we should never try to say about somebody's experience which element was the most important, because only the individual situation can tell us that. But, obviously, the gender barrier affects half of the African-American community and half of every community of color as well, and it is very severe. So statistically speaking, it's probably true that women of color have it the toughest.

MARTIN: There's also a question of the way that a gender gets disappeared. And I want to give an example of that. Here's a clip from - I think what you might be talking about. Here's a campaign rally, a New Hampshire campaign rally, and some hecklers were shouting out some choice words. Let's play it.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Some people think you bring about change…

Unidentified Man: Iron my shirt.

Sen. CLINTON: …by demanding it.

Unidentified Man: Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt.

Sen. CLINTON: And some people think…

Unidentified Man: Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt.

Sen. CLINTON: …you bring about change by…

Unidentified Man: Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt.

Sen. CLINTON: Can we turn the lights on? It's awfully dark here for everybody.

Unidentified Man: Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt. Iron my shirt.

Sen. CLINTON: Oh, the remnants of sexism alive and well tonight.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MARTIN: Well, if you couldn't hear that clearly, these hecklers were yelling, iron my shirt. And at first, you know, when I heard that, I thought, you know, it's hard to imagine anybody yelling shine my shoes to Barack Obama. On the other hand, I've been at campaign rallies where people have had, you know, signs saying real Americans have red necks, white skins, and you know, I can't remember what the blue - blue in that sort of arrangement was. And, you know, the confederate flag being sort of pulled out at sort of key points is kind of a standard on the campaign trail. So that kind of - I don't know, so how do you see that?

Ms. STEINEM: Well, you know, if I have a plea to make here, it's linking not ranking, you know. Because a competition of tears, an abstract competition of tears is not helpful. We have to look at each situation and see what it was and oppose all - everything that is keeping us from having the full talent of this country. I mean, if we - we can't scrabble for a small piece of the pie while you-know-who has 90 percent of it. And while we continue to keep our - to choose our leaders by eliminating females and eliminating people of color and eliminating people who don't have famous fathers and lots of money and so on -I mean, the point is that we unite.

And that was what made the suffragists and the abolitionist movement strong, and that was what made it weak when it got divided. So I'm - it's not about a competition of suffering here. My question, my purpose, was mainly to make the sex part of it visible, whether it was affecting women of color, which is why I started out with that example, or Hillary Clinton.

MARTIN: But - I'm sorry. But you also suggested in another op-ed in The New York Times in February that this whole question of kind of trying to unpack which is more powerful, race or gender, is itself divisive and potentially destructive. And I - it seems to me that you've changed your mind about that.

Ms. STEINEM: No. I haven't.

MARTIN: And I wonder if I'm reading it right, and keeping…

Ms. STEINEM: No, I haven't. I actually - I haven't changed my mind at all. And what I meant by gender being probably the most restrictive force was it affects the most people. I wasn't tying to rank it according…

MARTIN: What - Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEINEM: …to whatever else is unfair and unjust. But statistically, obviously, it affects the most people. And it didn't seem to me in this case to be very visible. We know what's wrong by social disapproval of it, and the level of social disapproval for the N-word is perhaps more than for the B-word. I don't know why that - you know, perhaps that's because it affects more people. So, you know, it's harder to change the whole structure, including of the African-American community, which in its leadership, has been quite patriarchal, too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm talking to Gloria Steinem about her recent op-ed in The New York Times.

In your piece, you the make the point that this country lags far behind others in female executive leadership. Why do you think that is?

Ms. STEINEM: You know, I think, wherever there is the most power, there is the most competition. And therefore, you know, in very powerful media places, for instance, you're less likely - you're more likely to see predictable white guys in the leadership than you are in a small paper in a small town, where it's -so the level of power that comes with the presidency of this country is part of the reason. And I think, ironically, the other part of the reason is that we are a little bit less addicted to family and class than some other countries. If Indira Gandhi, for instance, had had a brother, probably he would have been a prime minister first. But because she didn't, even being a female was mitigated by the power of the family.

MARTIN: What about Margaret Thatcher? She wasn't part of the aristocracy.

Ms. STEINEM: Well, Margaret Thatcher was representing class interests. And since class interests are at least somewhat - I'm not saying we don't have a class system here, we do. But it is more deeply embedded in English life than it is in our life. Because she represented class interests, the fact that she was a woman was more acceptable. She was actually a disaster for the women's movement in England. It wasn't as if she was representing the majority interests of women. So I have long argued, you know, for 30 years I've arguing that we're slower in getting a female president. But if we finally get one, we're more likely to get one that represents the majority interests of the country, including the majority of women.

MARTIN: That doesn't seem to be the case right now, at least for Senator Clinton's campaign. It seems right now, at least in New Hampshire, her strongest support came from people with less education who are lower income. And women made a strong showing for Senator Clinton in New Hampshire, in contrast to Iowa, where women supported Senator Obama by lesser margins, but he teamed out ahead among women. I'm just wondering how you read that.

Ms. STEINEM: Well, I also - when I say what's the social disapproval of sexism, it's very much embedded. You know, women live in this culture, too. So if we see a member of our own group who suddenly is playing a role that we have never seen played by a woman before, it makes us uncomfortable, too. Or it makes some of us uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Well, what if the issue isn't gender? It's her. Likeability does matter in politics. A lot of people would argue that one reason George W. Bush came out ahead into two elections - although the first one is obviously in dispute - but in part, because he was the guy that more people wanted to have a beer with instead of Al Gore and not - instead of John Kerry.

Ms. STEINEM: Well, who is more people? I certainly wouldn't want to have a beer with him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEINEM: I would much rather talk to Al Gore. So that is a very, very subjective measure. I think we would be a little bit more advanced if the media were more helpful in showing us how the positions to the various candidates will affect our daily lives and less focused on their rhetoric, their appearance, their likeability. But I…

MARTIN: But there's no instruction manual that comes with your voter registration. People are free to choose on whatever standards they wish, and sometimes people choose on how they feel as I opposed to this checklist of issues.

Ms. STEINEM: But, unfortunately, the checklist of issues is absent. You know, if I get up on - or frequently absent. If I get up on campus and say how many of you are going to graduate in debt? Hands shoot up, you know. If I tell them how much more likely they are to graduate in debt since George Bush took office than they were before, they say where did you find that out? You know?

So I think we do suffer from an information deficit. But, you know, the overall point here is, really, that we need all the talent we've got. And we have to take off our blinders about what a leader looks like, whether that has to do with sex or race or, you know, whatever it may be, so that we can access what really - who really would be the most helpful to us.

MARTIN: Now, and given what you just said - and we only got about a minute left. But given on what you just said about you wish people would focus more on the issues and less on kind of this sort of imagery and stuff like - what do you make of the fact that a turning point for Senator Clinton seems to be when she got more emotional? I mean, at that's for women…

Ms. STEINEM: Well, I think…

MARTIN: …for women, many people who've been interviewed said that was the key for her.

Ms. STEINEM: I think that has to do with the authenticity, you know, as a kind of trust level. In other words, do we trust what they're telling us about the issues, or are they being artificial? And she has been under a lot of pressure to - how shall I say - to look like a leader. You know, someone asked Al Gore why he didn't behave the same way when he was running for president as he has since he's been an environmental leader. And he was quiet for a moment, and he said, I didn't know you didn't have to be presidential. I think she thought she had to be presidential when what people want, at least as much, is authenticity.

MARTIN: Well, you've said in your piece that you're - you kind of - you are personally giving Senator Clinton the edge in this race because - based on her experience and other factors. And so we sort of want to sort of point that out. But I do hope come back from time to time and talk to us about these issues.

Ms. STEINEM: I would like that very much. It's such an important conversation and…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. STEINEM: …too few people have it. I thank you.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you.

Gloria Steinem is an advocate, author and co-founder of the Women's Media Center. She joined us by phone from her office in New York.

Thanks so much.

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