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A Breakthrough in the Presidency! (Now What?)

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One year ago, the United States seemed likely to get our first woman president or our first non-lily-white president. It wasn't clear which.

Today we celebrate the fact that the country has turned a corner. What can we expect as a consequence? If history is a guide, the breakthrough of having a non-white president should be helpful for the rights of women. Progress happens in spurts. The U.S. women's rights movement has moved ahead in parallel with efforts in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. The presidencies I think are of special interest are #11, 18, 28, 35 and 36.

#11, James K. Polk. The 1848 women's rights convention at Seneca Falls was convened by abolitionist women who came to champion their own rights. But it took Frederick Douglass, who had himself just escaped from slavery ten years earlier, to convince the cautious women to embrace suffrage as a goal. Susan B. Anthony, who joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton not long after the convention as co-leader of the suffrage movement, was also an abolitionist.

#18, Ulysses S. Grant. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from denying the vote to a "citizen" (i.e., a man at that time) on the basis of "race, color or previous condition of servitude." Some women leaders were outraged that the proposed amendment did not enfranchise women. During the second term of the 18th president, Frederick Douglass became the first African-American nominated as a U.S. Vice Presidential candidate, running on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for U.S. President. But after that burst of effort, progress for the next 40 years was slow on both the race and gender fronts, perhaps because the country was absorbing so many new immigrants.

#28, Woodrow Wilson. During the 1910s, a new wave of woman suffragists became active, led by Quaker Alice Paul, Catholic Lucy Burns and freethinking New Yorker Inez Milholland, whose Presbyterian father (one of the last of the Lincoln Republicans) was the first Treasurer of the NAACP. When Wilson arrived at Union Station for his first inauguration, the only people to meet him were a few escorts sent by President Taft. Everyone else was at the huge woman suffrage parade, led bravely by Inez Milholland in the face of violent opposition by opponents of suffrage. Milholland intervened on behalf of a Howard University group that was being denied a place in the parade. Milholland died three years later during a strenuous suffragist campaign against Wilson in the West. Her death inspired a final push by women to get the vote that turned public opinion and then Wilson around. The last state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920.

#35 and #36, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The civil rights movement blossomed in the 1960s, putting a spotlight on Jim Crow laws. The federal government put itself behind enforcement not just of voting rights but broader civil rights. The women's liberation movement grew in tandem, led by writers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, peaking perhaps in 1970 with the anniversary-year march of 10,000 people down Fifth Avenue.

#44, Barack Obama. So, what can we expect now? Maybe, more interest in rights for everyone, which could mean many things. A year ago, I wrote:

Vote for Hillary Clinton, but not on the basis that someone of color has no right to occupy the White House. Vote for Barack Obama, but not on the basis that no woman has a right to become president.

My rights are not secure until they are secure for everyone else.