How Clinton and Obama boosted feminism, civil rights
The primary contest helped both of the historical causes, though some tensions erupted.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.