A New Civil Rights Wave?

01/13/2008 11:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Too much is being made of the special appeal of a white female candidate and a (half-)black male candidate. Electing either candidate would advance the cause of human rights. America has had universal adult suffrage for 88 years, the luckiest number in most of the world, but for 45 of those years the Jim Crow laws persisted.

As some opponents of the two leading Democratic nominees express themselves, they reveal how far the nation has to go to achieve universal human rights.

In fact the women's rights movement in the United States has historically found its voice best when linked with the voices of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements.

1. The 1848 convention at Seneca Falls is an example of this linkage. Anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass gave the crucial speech that convinced the Seneca Falls convention to embrace suffrage as a goal. Susan B. Anthony, soon to join Elizabeth Cady Stanton as co-leader of the suffrage movement, leader, was the daughter and brother of leading Quaker abolitionists. Women and non-white men were on the same side until 1869 when women leaders were shocked to see a new suffrage law that excluded women. During the 50 years (1870-1920) it took for the United States to progress to universal adult suffrage, some advocates for woman suffrage made a few unfortunate alliances and utterances out of desperation. But women of color provided many eloquent advocates for women's rights, from Sojourner Truth ("Ain't I a woman?") to Frances Harper.

2. In the 1910s, a second women's rights movement flourished under Quaker Alice Paul, Catholic Lucy Burns and freethinking Inez Milholland, who led the suffrage marches on horseback in New York City in 1912 and Washington in 1913. Milholland was the daughter of the NAACP's first Treasurer, who spoke out vociferously against racism in the 1910s and 1920s.

3. A third wave dates from 1963. The Women's Liberation Movement was sparked by (the late) Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. It spread with the addition of voices like those of Gloria Steinem and bell hooks along with the ferment of antiwar sentiment and the 1960s civil rights movement. The movement may have reached its peak in August 1970 with the march of 10,000 people down Fifth Avenue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the last state's ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. It was a march that Friedan described as "succeeding beyond her wildest dreams".

4. Could 2008 bring a new civil rights wave? As career-oriented younger women confront the realities of the glass ceiling in their own professions, could they pin their future on Hillary Clinton on the basis that until a woman is elected president they will never truly believe that a woman can be elected president? Similar questions may arise in the minds of African-Americans as they ponder whether or not to support Barack Obama.

Human rights must be defended for everyone, or they will be preserved for no one. 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. Vote while keeping in mind violations of other people's rights, or -- as inhabitants of Germany discovered under Hitler - our own rights will swirl down the same drain.