How Clinton and Obama Boosted Feminism, Civil Rights

Article excerpt

The race between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton may be over, but its effects on the broader movements for racial and sexual equality in America are likely to be felt - and debated - well past the fall.

Senator Obama's victory roused blacks who never thought they would see an African-American this close to the presidency, not in a country with a shameful history of slavery. Senator Clinton embodied the aspirations of millions of women, many of whom saw in her defeat a culture still rife with sexism.

If nothing else, say activists and scholars, 2008 was a quantum leap forward in the long struggle for equal representation at the highest levels of government.

The United States once refused both blacks and women the right to vote. An eight-way nomination fight in a major party that narrowed to an African-American and a woman is a singular feat that broke down doors and is likely to inspire a parade of successors.

"Both Obama and Hillary Clinton have transformed what people, from all walks of life, believe is possible," says Blair Kelley, a historian of social movements at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But some feminist leaders say reaction to Clinton's candidacy reflects just how much work remains. Commentators in the news media dissected everything from Clinton's laugh and clothes to her ankles and cleavage, and hecklers at a New Hampshire campaign stop in January shouted, "Iron my shirt!"

"Will that treatment be the norm for women who run in the future? Has it become acceptable?" Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, wrote in a column on the group's website this month.

Other activists worry that the success of Obama and Clinton could weaken support for affirmative action and other antidiscrimination measures. If blacks and women can now be president, foes of such programs can now argue, then what more help do they need?

Progress in the struggle for women's and minority rights has often been measured along a demographic yardstick. How many of our own do we have in the statehouse? some ask. How many in the corporate boardroom? But in no small part because of Obama's "postracial" message, many voters no longer see minority candidates as strictly - or even mostly - representing minority interests.

Some black civil rights leaders backed Clinton; an abortion- rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, backed Obama.

Moreover, "the crossover support of white and black men for Clinton and male and female whites for Obama shows we are in a transitional period in which more Americans are willing to transcend their own racial and gender identities when they support candidates," says Estelle Freedman, a feminist historian at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "The legacy for younger Americans, including future voters, in normalizing such candidacies, may be one of the most important legacies."

Some critics say it was less voters than the news media, obsessed with firsts, that reduced Obama to his race and Clinton to her gender. "It's an element that got inflamed in the course of the campaign because of the premium on differentiation," says Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University and an expert on social movements. "It didn't start out that way. When this campaign started, Hillary was the favorite of black voters."

Activists say the nomination fight is a milestone, rather than the end of the road, for the women's and civil rights movements.

Regardless of who wins the White House in November, blacks will remain underrepresented in higher education and management and overrepresented in prison and poverty. A list of legislative priorities for the NAACP runs 23 pages and ranges from a minimum- wage hike and hurricane Katrina relief to voting rights for ex- offenders and more funding for historically black colleges. …