Jim Downs: The Democrats should blame history for the dilemma they face in having to choose between Clinton and Obama

Roundup: Historians' Take

In a crowded black church in Southern California in February 2008, President Bill Clinton announced, ‘I waited my whole life to vote for an African American for president. I waited my whole life to vote for a woman for president. And sometimes I look up at sky and say God you’re playing with my mind again.’ God may not be playing a trick on Clinton’s mind, but history seems to be.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African Americans’ and women’s campaigns for equality often unfolded simultaneously, often relied on one another for support, and often resulted in asking who would be first to earn political recognition. That the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee will either be a woman or an African American is rooted in a history that can be traced to the decades leading up to the Civil War, when the movements for African Americans’ and for women’s equality both emerged. ...


Since many Republicans viewed the rebuilding of the nation not as a time to reassess the Constitution’s commitment to equality for all people but rather as a unique moment to seize voting rights for black people, they ignored women’s calls for suffrage and began to view women’s agitation for equality as a burden and obstacle to black enfranchisement.

As President Lincoln put it, ‘One war at a time, so I say, one question at a time. This hour belongs to the Negro.’ Frederick Douglass, despite his friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other leading women’s activists, abandoned their cause as he famously propagated the argument that the postwar period was, in fact, as Lincoln stated, ‘the Negro Hour’. Seeing women’s tenuous position within postwar politics derailed, Susan B. Anthony enquired of radical Republicans, ‘May I ask just one question based on the apparent opposition in which you place the Negro and the woman? Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?’

In an effort to circumvent a split between the two groups, women activists created the American Equal Rights Association to call for state governments to grant universal human suffrage. Initially, this seemed like a plausible panacea to prevent the widening gap between each movement but the Republican Party’s determination to establish a formidable presence in the Reconstruction South by granting African-Americans the right to vote only marginalized the women’s movement further. 

Suffragists played into the ephemeral notion underlying the claim of the ‘Negro Hour’. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote ‘The whole question of time is so clear to me ... would it not be wiser ... when the constitutional door is open, [to] avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldier to walk in by his side?’ But despite Stanton’s strategic show of submissiveness in allowing herself to be escorted into equality with a man on her arm, Republicans continued to ignore women’s position and suggestions.

That the Republican Party could dismiss women’s arguments for equality because it was the ‘Negro hour’ exposes a subversive form of sexism that can be found in today’s battle for the Democratic nomination. A similar catchy slogan, ‘Don’t tell Mama, I am for Obama’, speaks to the fact that many younger voters recognize what a woman contender for the presidency represents to their mother’s generation but feel openly confident in deriding women’s position with a sing-songy verse. From the nineteenth century to the present, from Stanton to Clinton, women leaders have posited arguments that justify their calls for equality and recognition but have often been ignored because of sexism. Christine Stansell, a leading historian of gender and sexuality, has astutely noted that ‘sexism has become the permissible prejudice, the prejudice of sophisticated quips and hauteur, the nastiness that knows no name – except it does have a name.’...

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