How Clinton and Obama boosted feminism, civil rights

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

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Barriers broken: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, here at an April forum in Pennsylvania, both made history in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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.

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."

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

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."

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