Consider This: The race and gender race

I am chowing down at our favorite restaurant, El Patrón in Altadena. “Are you doing anything special for Black History month?” my friend asks. She knows that I’m a history nerd, and her question wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“You know I’m a National Women’s History Alliance board member, right?”

“Just like you were the last 100 times you told me,” she poked.

“Maybe you’d like to join us. The NWHA is having a ‘Celebrating the Power of Black Women’ event on Feb. 7. I’ll send you the link for details. We can have dinner here afterward and talk about it. Wanna?”

Black History Month, also known as U.S. history, has been observed since America’s bicentennial year. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

If I’m being candid, I’m ambivalent about designating months for histories of specific groups. The snarky part of me is: Black History in February, Women’s History in March; then there’s Native American History month, blah blah blah… As if these groups are not part and parcel of the entire weaving of American history? And yet, I am also overjoyed that we make these months special. I admit I’m envious of the status of Black History month. Banks, corporations and educational institutions all celebrate and help promote during February. Women’s history and the other commemorative months? Not so much.

Truth is, I can’t be annoyed by a month or the people honored in it. In many ways, Black women are the perfect subjects for two months in a row: February for their skin color; March for their assigned gender. For decades, they’ve been the engines of social progress for everyone.

It breaks my heart to see resentment between women of color and white women. There is even a term for the phenomenon: “horizontal hostility.” Horizontal hostility is a term I first saw in Robin Morgan’s book, “Sisterhood is Powerful,” an anthology of feminist essays that turned my life upside down. In that book, the late great lawyer and political activist Florynce Kennedy — the spelling of her first name was as audacious as she was! — discussed in-fighting issues in her essay, “Institutionalized Oppression vs. the Female.” Kennedy coined the term “horizontal hostility” to describe the often bitter battles between women dealing with the same gender issues or between people of the same minority or ethnic group about so-called minority issues.

I can’t claim to have direct experience with racism, although I certainly have witnessed racially oriented ugliness. I have my gender “creds” just by walking around in a female body, reading, writing and thinking about misogyny and sexism for most of my life. Florynce Kennedy had loads of both gender and race issue credibility because she was an African American woman.

Simply put, horizontal hostility happens because the frustration of breaking barriers makes it easier to fight each other horizontally than it is to fight “the power” (usually held by white men) vertically. You know that famous glass ceiling? It’s called that because ceilings are up, and glass because you can see what’s happening. Women, gays and people of color can see clearly above them as they stare at the shoe bottoms of straight white men. If you’re in an “out” group, you’re often pissed off and not getting very far, and it’s convenient to start socking each other in the throat at your own level. At least you feel like you’re doing something!

While comparing suffering is a mistake, it’s almost unavoidable when discussing race and gender. Being the wrong race at the wrong time can get you harassed, under-employed or even killed. So can gender. I firmly believe that men of any color would be shocked if they knew the constant unwanted attention that women of all races are subjected to. The rape and murder statistics for women attacked by their “intimates” is astounding. Most thinking people can understand the pain arising from being judged for attributes that come with birth, such as sexual organs or skin color.

Who benefits from horizontal hostility? The establishment does — make no mistake about it. Divide and conquer is a strategy as old as any game, war or campaign. The status quo can sit back and watch the people who are not part of them duke it out. Here in 2023, it’s time for some horizontal unity!

Finally, I want to leave with you some quotes by Flo Kennedy… How I miss her!

• The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.

• Freedom is like taking a bath — you have to keep doing it every day!

• You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun!

2023 marks the 30th year that Ellen Snortland has written this column. She also teaches creative writing online and can be reached at Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at