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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Ain't I a woman? Abolitionist Sojouner Truth posed the question more than a century and a half ago. Truth, a former slave, helped frame a complex face-off between race and gender. The clash breaks down to which side she'll choose, her gender or her blackness. Today, the Clinton/Obama race has brought the issue to a rolling boil for some high-profile feminist leaders.

A multi-racial group of female activists, journalists and educators have been debating who should get to be America's first first in the Oval Office, a black person or a woman. The argument got so heated that a meeting was called recently to smooth things over. What helped spark the conflict? A New York Times op-ed penned earlier this year by veteran feminist Gloria Steinem. In a few minutes I'll talk with one of the women who pushed back at Steinem's piece. But first, Gloria Steinem joins me now. How are you? Welcome to NEWS & NOTES.

Ms. GLORIA STEINEM (Author, co-founder Women's Media Center): Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: So, do you see this debate as a question of what part of your identity you choose or how you interact with people who have different hopes and dreams based on who they are?

Ms. STEINEM: No, I don't actually. And what - the point of my piece in the New York Times was to point out the misogyny with which Hillary was being treated but also to say as I did, that I would be happy to support Barack Obama. So you know, it seems to me that the important thing here is that Barack Obama is a feminist and Hillary Clinton is a civil rights advocate and this is a historic year in which we have two very good candidates, both of whom have raised the standards.

CHIDEYA: You were a New York delegate for Shirley Chisholm when she made her White House bid in 1972.

Ms. STEINEM: Yes, I'm proud of that.

CHIDEYA: So she was seen even back then as a long shot: black. female, outspoken. How are the stakes different now, given that we have both what we call a viable female candidate and a viable black candidate?

Ms. STEINEM: Well Shirley Chisholm was not a viable candidate. She was only on the ballot in a few states. But it was a crucial candidacy because she took the "white male only" sign off the White House door. And we all owe her a great debt of gratitude. She herself out of, based on her own experience, felt that it was more difficult to be a woman in political life than to be an African-American, which is what she always used to say. But it seems to me that those situations can only be judged by the individual who is in them.

CHIDEYA: Now, how do you feel when critics say, you're forcing women to either be down with the feminist camp by voting for Clinton or against that camp for opting for Obama. And...

Ms. STEINEM: I think that's ridiculous. You know, I mean it makes no sense whatsoever. The question, I mean they are pretty similar on the issues. It's always, it has to be a coalition of sex and race. There are two caste systems, as I said in the column, that can only be uprooted together. The point is to oppose them both. The problem is that the — much of the media is not, is ranking them rather than linking them.

CHIDEYA: But that was essentially the phrase, either/or feminist was put into, written into a response to your op-ed by Kimberle Crenshaw, who we'll speak with in a minute. And...

Ms. STEINEM: Oh but that's a misunderstanding of what I was saying. It's not either/or and I think that we came to a much better understanding of that by having coffee together with a lot of other women.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about that meeting. It has gotten, in certain circles, a lot of play as this you know, meeting of great minds. And do you think that it accomplished what you hoped it would accomplish in terms of bringing together a dialogue between women of different points of view, black and white but on a broader level, people who saw differences in the approach of feminists to election 2008. Do you think it accomplished what you wanted it to accomplish?

Ms. STEINEM: Yeah, I mean I think that it made clear that we have to keep talking so that we are not pushed apart by the idea that sex and race are competitive here or that you can't be a feminist and support Barack Obama, which of course you can. So I thought it was, I hope and believe that it was helpful in that regard. We'll see when we make sure that we all unify on whoever the candidate is.

CHIDEYA: Before I let you go, it seems to me that some people are staking out a claim that is not at all receptive to the other candidate becoming the nominee. I've heard from Clinton supporters who say I'm not going to vote for Obama and Obama supporters who say I'm not going to vote for Clinton. And that says that whatever kind of big tent there is in the Democratic ranks could be pulled apart by some of these divisions. Do you see that and if so, what could be done about that?

Ms. STEINEM: I don't think so. I mean that would have to be, you'd have to be something of a masochist and an insecure one or immature one at that, because it's the issues that are important and we are united on the issues and it's terribly, terribly vital to this whole country, not to mention much of the world, that we defeat McCain. So to allow some personal feelings to interfere with the larger good of ourselves and the country just wouldn't make sense to me, so I hope and believe that we are going to be united on either one of these candidates.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gloria, thanks so much.

Ms. STEINEM: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Gloria Steinem is co-founder of The Women's Media Center and she joined me from New York.

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