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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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Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., suggested Obama had the tougher road because "Hillary ain't never been called a n----- . "

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Tensions between the movements for women's rights and black freedom are nothing new. About 140 years ago, leading suffragists, incensed by women's exclusion, refused to support the 14th and 15th Amendments granting black men the right to vote. In the 1960s, some black women leaders argued that feminism – a mostly white-led movement – would further demoralize black men already weakened by the legacy of slavery.

"There were a lot of old wounds that were opened over the course of the campaign," says Robyn Spencer, a social activist and historian of protest movements, at Lehman College, in the Bronx. Obama and Clinton have worked to heal those, with the Illinois senator acknowledging the sexism Clinton faced and Clinton asking women to celebrate her candidacy rather than dwell on her defeat.

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it," Clinton said to applause during her concession speech in Washington on June 7, referring to the number of votes she had won nationally. "The light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time."

Diane Balser, a women's and antiwar activist in the 1960s, said Clinton's candidacy injected new life into a women's movement that had lost traction in recent years.

"We had lost a lot of visibility and there was a myth that we lived in a postfeminist world," says Ms. Balser, now an instructor in the women's studies program at Boston University.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, says that as a former community organizer and civil rights attorney, Obama is likely to be receptive to the agenda of civil rights groups.

"He's someone we look at and say, 'You were an activist, too,' " says Mr. Shelton. He says an Obama administration would no doubt vigorously enforce voting rights and antidiscrimination laws long neglected under President Bush. "Obama didn't just study it. He's been there."