Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Clashing Change

The present dilemma in the Democratic Party -- which stands poised to nominate the first American woman president or the first president of measurable African ancestry, but not both -- has echoes through American history. It's been a long, difficult relationship, often pitting black men against white women for the opportunity to advance, leaving black women suspended somewhere between (and often overlooked by all).

When social forces began to gather enough steam to make change in society, and society seemed willing to change, many people felt (probably correctly) they could accomplish one goal or another, but to try for multiple major advances was to dissipate the energy and to risk alienating the broader population with an appearance of undifferentiated radicalism.

In the 1830s, the Grimke sisters had tried to speak out both as abolitionists and women, but in the end their speaking out attracted more notoriety than their message. Even such a social radical as Orestes Brownson felt uncomfortable: "We do not believe women ... are fit to have their own head. Without masculine direction or control, she is out of her element and a social anomaly -- sometimes a hideous monster."

One of the sadder moments came at the 1840 London World Anti-Slavery Convention. Women had been active in abolition causes, rightly sensing (as Frederick Douglass did coming from the other perspective) that the two struggles faced many common obstacles. But in London, women delegates who had arrived from as far off as America were denied seats and told to sit in the gallery as spectators. The scandal over this helped tear apart the American abolition movement and ultimately led to the founding of a separate women's rights movement.

After the Civil War, black men got the right to vote. There was politics in this: It would aid one party (the Republicans) in a bid to maintain national hegemony. By 1876, however, new Western states had begun to shift the old balance and the GOP found it too troublesome to try to maintain an artificial domination over the South. It abandoned the region and left the black vote to be buried under restrictive laws and taxes and pure intimidation.

Nobody saw a political edge in women's votes, apparently. Probably the view prevailed among those in power that women would basically vote as the men in their family did, and women's suffrage would merely multiply the number of votes without changing the outcome of elections.

Through decades of frustration, women struggling for the franchise occasionally turned to racist appeals to rally for change, along the lines of "you let these degraded Negroes and foreigners vote in your election, why not your own wives and daughters?"

Echoes, but not parallels. Hillary's great-great-grandparents and Obama's lived in a world where people in America lived and died in slavery and women had few equal rights.