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This is an historic election.
Let's celebrate it.

by Jo Freeman

As we emerge from the miasma of the primaries, let us not forget that this has been an historic Presidential selection season and it will be an historic election.

The voters in the Democratic primaries and caucuses chose as their favorites two extraordinary candidates — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — who are both extra-ordinary individuals in many, many ways.

They chose them out of a field of exemplary candidates for the Democratic nomination for President, who in other years would have had been excellent choices in their own right.

That these voters chose a black man and a white woman over so many outstanding white men is something of which we can all be proud.  It illustrates what is good about America, at a time when many find it hard to see the good.  It demonstrates that we can overcome historic prejudices, that we can change deeply buried values and attitudes, that we can look beyond the surface to see the substance.

The significance of this has been buried in hot and heavy campaign rhetoric — magnified by media who feed off blood — which has left bruised feelings in its wake.  It has led to comparisons of race and gender as handicaps and as platforms in ways that benefit neither candidate and neither demographic group.

Weighing sexism against racism will always be futile because there is no way of measuring either.  Indicia are at best imperfect and particularly hard to discern when hidden by the fear of making socially unacceptable statements. 

What we do know is that in the span of US history, rights and opportunities for women and for blacks have generally gone in tandem, but those for blacks have usually moved forward first. Whichever group moves first inspires others who want a fair share. Many of the individuals who risk their lives, their careers, their health and their fortunes to advance opportunities for one group have generally gone on to do so for the other.

There are exceptions.  During the Progressive era, women's rights advanced while those of blacks retrogressed.  After World War II, women were sent home, while long-shut doors were just beginning to open for African-Americans.  In both cases, each group learned from the other and eventually followed suit.

As candidates for President, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before.  Between 1964 and 2004, over fifty women ran for President.  Most were unknown, but all advanced the cause of women as potential Presidential candidates by being seen and speaking out. Fewer blacks have run for President, but they probably achieved the same impact through more publicity.

They also are reaping the promise and the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Comparing the problems and possibilities of women and African American candidates is a little like comparing apples and oranges. Women start with a larger demographic base (there are more women than blacks), but it's less cohesive (women are less likely to vote their gender than blacks are to vote their race).  Outside the Democratic electorate, partisanship divides women, while it has a minor effect on the black vote.

Both Hillary and Obama have sought to transcend gender and race in order to convince the voters that each can be the President of all the people.   In this Obama has succeeded more than Hillary.

Hillary has been a Rorschach test in ways that Obama simply isn't.  Men and women both project onto her their hopes and fears about strong women and women in leadership roles.  Whatever fears whites had about blacks in leadership positions have been mostly worn away with time and experience, leaving Obama to inherit the hope. 

Obama, on the other hand, will always be haunted by the specter of hidden racism — the kind that people don't express publicly, often not even to pollsters.  Because it is still more socially acceptable to make sexist statements than racist ones, Hillary has been the brunt of a lot of bad jokes, while Obama and his supporters must always wonder what lurks in people's minds that they do not say — but might act upon.

Nonetheless, the fact that the Democratic primary voters chose these two candidates to be their choice for President in state after state tells us that something has changed in America, for the better.  I don't think that change happened this year.  I think the turning point in the acceptability (or rather non-acceptability) of racism and sexism happened sometime in the 1990s, and that this campaign is the first opportunity that Americans have had to demonstrate that change nationally in a highly visible manner.
I pick the 1990s not because of any polls or statistics, but because of a lot of anecdotes which told me that some sort of threshold had been crossed. Nor do I think there was any particular event in the 1990s which caused it. 

Rather I believe that a fundamental change in attitudes toward  race and sex were a hard-won result of the social movements of the 1960s — the ones the right wing so often demonizes as leading to America's downfall.  The youth of those days are the seniors of these days; they and the generations that followed see the world differently than earlier generations.

We have a precedent for this kind of change in the Democratic nominees who were Catholic.  When Al Smith ran in 1928, anti-Catholic sentiment was open and raw.  Though we don't have scientific polls for that year, general sentiment was that his religion contributed significantly to his loss, especially in the traditionally Democratic South. 

When Kennedy ran in 1960, his religion was questioned, but anti-Catholic sentiments were small and subdued.  He won, though not by much.  When Kerry ran in 2004, most people didn't know he was a Catholic.  In 2008, one of the Republican wannabes was Catholic (at least in name); the only negative response I saw was that he defied his Church by being pro-choice.

I think sex and race are where Catholicism was in 1960 — still a concern, but not an overwhelming one.  The Democratic nominee will need to address the issue, as Kennedy did, but the American people will listen.

The 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination will be something to celebrate long after the wounds are forgotten. 

This is the election I've been working for my entire life.


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