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How Clinton and Obama boosted feminism, civil rights

The primary contest helped both of the historical causes, though some tensions erupted.

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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."

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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.

Obama remains the only black senator, and blacks, who are more than 13 percent of the US population, make up less than 10 percent of House members.

Women make up 16 percent of Congress, and Gandy, the NOW president, ticked off a list of issues – beyond more female elected officials – that will remain on the women's rights agenda: equal pay, domestic violence, abortion rights, hate crime legislation, and sex education that includes discussion of birth control.

"Clinton's campaign was an enormous gain for the women's movement," Gandy said in an interview. All the same, she said, "Our issues haven't changed much."

One irony of the nomination fight is that it pitted a member of one historically ill-treated group against a member of another. The primary season saw competing claims from black and feminist leaders over which group was more deserving of electoral redemption.

Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice-presidential candidate, resigned as a Clinton fundraiser after saying Obama owed his political rise to being black, and the pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem penned a New York Times column that questioned why "the sex barrier is not taken as seriously as the racial one."