Aside: Alice Paul and Malcolm X.

These occasionally enlightening, mostly exhausting conversations regarding gender and race have highlighted the often uneasy historical relationship that has existed between feminists and civil rights activists, progressive movements that still often managed to give shelter to the most insidious kinds of chauvinism, patriarchy and bigotry.

Ari Kelman, one of the history professors over at edgeofthewest, wanted to do a glowing write-up of Alice Paul, the courageous suffragist and founder of the National Women’s Party. And then he learned she was a racist.

“This kind of thing happens all too often: heroes don’t usually withstand close scrutiny unblemished,” he said.

I know how he feels. I was a relative latecomer to the Autobiography of Malcolm X (I was 25), and when I read it I was surprised at how distracting his sexism was (and how deeply weird the N.O.I.‘s mythology is). A few people tried to downplay his attitudes, saying they were fairly normal views in the historical context in which he lived. Maybe. But, obviously, there’s something deeply paradoxical about people simultaneously crusading for empowerment and beating the drum for marginalization.

It’s frustrating that progressives are still fighting these same fights all these years later.

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3 thoughts on “Aside: Alice Paul and Malcolm X.

  1. ari January 16, 2008 at 12:50 pm Reply

    I’m very grateful for the link. And I live your blog. It shall reside, from this point forward, on my list of daily reads. But, I’m a bit worried about calling Paul an “unabashed” racist. I think she actually was pretty mortified about her racism (see the letter that I’ve linked to in my original post). I’m not sure that excuses her in any way; actually I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I just don’t want people to think that she was out and proud about her failings. She wasn’t and wasn’t.

    I hope you don’t mind the comment. I’ll return to my regularly scheduled lurking now. All the best, Ari

  2. Tabitha January 16, 2008 at 5:22 pm Reply

    Showtime’s “bullshit” with penn and teller does someting similar in an epsiode abt ghandi, mother theresa and a few othe highly regarded figures. they contend that ghandi was also a racist and mother theresa reveled in the suffering of others b/c she was some weird sociapath that beleived it made them closer to god.

  3. G.D. January 16, 2008 at 10:16 pm Reply


    I’ll concede the unabashed point. I’m glad you like the blog; I’ve been reading edgeofthewest pretty regularly for some months (i couldn’t get your feef to work, otherwise it would be in our widget section). Thanks!

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