The Obama-Clinton Contest

— Dianne Feeley

IN LATE FEBRUARY as this is written, Barack Obama has surged into the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination. Before this unexpected development, African Americans had been skeptical about “whether he could win” or even “whether he was authentically Black.” But once they saw white people voting for him, Black voters’ enthusiasm about Obama’s possible victory became overwhelming.

If it should turn out that he wins more committed delegates in primary and caucus races than Hillary Clinton, then has the victory stolen by the Democratic superdelegates or inner-party manipulations, the backlash could be fatal for the Democratic Party in 2008 and for years to come.

Both Obama and Clinton are centrist Democrats — very close to each other’s positions on most issues — with the main difference being that Clinton embodies a more cynical “triangulated” version of those politics. This was supposed to be her big advantage — packaged as “experience” — but is turning into a big negative, especially her pro-war voting record. Obama for his part is not running on anything resembling a Black insurgency or a program based on a movement for social justice — but of course that’s why he’s no threat to the corporate rulers and hence, “electable.”

Meanwhile people who are looking for change — including young and even not-so-young white people — find it attractive to have a candidate who’s young, new and Black. Race has amazingly become an asset for him in the Democratic contest — although whether this would survive the racist assaults sure to come in the general election, to say nothing of the publicity that will surround his middle name Hussein, remains unknown.

Abusing History

Although neither Obama nor Clinton are “movement” people, they are seen as symbols of two historic freedom struggles. In this context, reporters are searching not only for the weekly debates between the respective “Black” and “woman” candidates, but for historical analogies.

Mark Leibovich, in a New York Times Week in Review (1/13/08) article Rights vs. Rights — An Improbable Collusion Course, attempted to explain the current race in light of the debate over suffrage (voting rights) that emerged after the Civil War. The assumption is that the current Democratic race continues a long-running conflict between African-American and women’s freedom struggles.

This notion does a disservice to both today’s reality and to the historical record. The U.S. women’s rights movement developed out of the antislavery movement of the 1830s, just as the second wave of feminism developed out of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s.

Women’s secondary status in society is often hidden by the celebration that women are men’s “better half.” Most women grow up thinking they are part of the family or community, so even though we “notice” how gender codes our lives, we accept it as fairly “natural.”

The discrimination we suffer as women is of a different order than the racial discrimination affecting people of color. Women may be the “other” gender, but we experience our otherness within our family and we love our brothers, fathers and other male relatives — even when there is domestic and sexual violence within our homes.

But as women became political actors in the antislavery, civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, we discovered that some male participants rejected our full participation. That reality forced women to consider our secondary status in society, as vividly recounted by several participants in the feature on 1968 in this issue of ATC.

In 1836, when Angelina and Sarah Grimké, daughters of a prominent South Carolina slaveholding family, began to speak about their first-hand experience, more than 300 women turned out to hear their talk. From the beginning men attempted to attend, and before long the Grimke sisters were speaking before mixed audiences.

A widely circulated pastoral letter denounced their speaking in public, stating that when a woman assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer “she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural.” The letter went on to compare a woman as a vine, whose strength and beauty was in its modesty, but if a woman became an elm, she would “cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into dust.”

Earlier, between 1831–33, Maria W. Stewart, an African-American woman, had spoke out as an abolitionist and supporter of greater educational opportunities for girls, but had been driven from the stage. Nonetheless, she claimed the right as a Black woman to challenge injustice.

Pointing to strong women Biblical figures, Stewart asserted that God could once again raise up females, including women of the “sable race,” to stop “the strong current of prejudice that flows so profusely.”

As Eleanor Flexner describes in A Century of Struggle, these abolitionist women found themselves “at odds with the traditions of decorum in which nineteenth century women were bred.” (46)

Angelina Grimké suffered a breakdown under the strain in 1838, and did not speak in public for many years. But Sarah responded:

“I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy.”

Pioneers of Struggle

The Grimké sisters, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, Frances Harper, Ernestine Rose, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dynamic early leaders of the antislavery movement. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton vowed to hold a women’s rights meeting during the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where, after a sharp debate, only men were seated. U.S. women delegates to the convention were forced to sit in the galleries — joined in solidarity by African-American delegate Charles Remond, and by William Lloyd Garrison.

But it was to be fully eight years before the historic women’s convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. In the tradition of the antislavery movement Mott and Stanton drafted a declaration of sentiments, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence.

Like many organizers, they worried about attendance, but in the end more than 250 women and 40 men attended. By the end of the day the most radical resolution — to secure suffrage for women — passed by a small majority.

Over the next 20 years the majority of women who were involved in the abolitionist movement were the organizers of occasional women’s conferences. During that period abolitionist women were generally aligned with the more radical section of the movement, most importantly with Frederick Douglass, who chaired the Seneca Falls meeting and attended all of the women’s conferences.

After a string of Confederate victories in early 1863, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called women together to support the Civil War as long as it was a war for freedom, and pledged to collect a million signatures in support of the Thirteenth Amendment. By August 1864, when the National Woman’s Loyal League disbanded, they had submitted nearly 400,000 signatures demanding an end to slavery throughout the United States.

Breaking Unity

In the summer of 1866 when the proposed Fourteenth Amendment was introduced into Congress citizenship was defined as male. Were women citizens? Previously the right to vote was left to the states. After the American Revolution women of property had voted in states like New Jersey and Virginia until “reforms” had disenfranchised them by the early 19th century. But with the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment, the struggle for women’s right to vote was no longer a state issue but a national one.

Following the Civil War women like Stanton and Anthony thought the Republican Party would be open to women’s suffrage. (During the war the most celebrated Republican orator was the youthful Anna Dickinson.) They were outraged by the Republican betrayal of their cause.

Republicans spoke of “the Negro’s Hour.” Stanton and Anthony felt it could be the Woman’s Hour as well. In the debate that followed, Susan B. Anthony said “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

Frederick Douglass, long a supporter of women’s suffrage, attempting to draw a distinction between the situation of the freedmen in the South and women, stated:

“When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed to the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot.”

When asked “Is that not all true about Black women?” Douglass replied, “Yes, yes, yes; it is true of the Black woman, but not because she is a woman, but because she is Black.”

Frances Harper pointed out that for Black women:

“When it is a question of race, she let the lesser question of sex go. But the white woman all go for sex, letting race occupy a minor position ... .”

Lucy Stone urged that the amendment’s wording be changed, but stated, “I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit.”

The amendment remained unchanged and was ratified in July 1868. Then the Republicans introduced the Fifteenth Amendment, which states citizens had a right to vote that could not be denied by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Why couldn’t the word “sex” be added to the list? It seems to me that the Republican Party, following the Civil War, didn’t need to enfranchise women the way they needed to enfranchise Black men. The party needed to smash the power of the Confederacy; there was no more effective way to do that than by empowering Black males with the vote.

The Republican Party only did what they needed to do to strip economic and political power from the slaveholding class. They weren’t prepared to do more, even in their most radical days.

By the 1870s the party clearly was, despite a still professed radicalism, the party of big business. It found the “Redeemers,” the conservative Democrats who were taking control of the Southern state governments, their natural allies.

In the midst of a depression, facing charges of corruption, and under attack from radical labor in the East and radical agrarians in the West, the Republican Party adjusted its policy. This meant abandoning the two remaining Republican Southern governments, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Although the so-called “compromise of 1877,” which led to Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president, is viewed as the culmination of this realignment, by the end of President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term his promise to remove federal troops from the South prepared the way. (See C. Vann Woodward’s account, Reunion and Reaction.)

A Tragic Split

Had the abolitionist movement not been split by the debate that counterpoised Black male suffrage to women’s suffrage there might have been a force to oppose Reconstruction’s demise and the rise of Jim Crow. Clearly the split set back both Black rights and women’s rights.

Neither side in the debate was able to maintain their independence from the Republican Party. I think a better way to frame the discussion over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, given the Republican Party, would have been to see Black male suffrage as a step forward in the battle for universal suffrage.

Frederick Douglass came the closest to articulating and practicing that conception. He continued to speak in support of women’s suffrage, and attended every women’s suffrage convention until Susan B. Anthony asked him not to attend the first convention held in the South.

Stanton and Anthony made two tragic mistakes, which came from their certainty that women’s suffrage was high up on the agenda after the war. Feeling betrayed by their former friends — both within the abolitionist movement and within the Republican Party — they entered into alliances over the years with unsavory characters. Ironically, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had insisted woman’s suffrage be a part of the Seneca Falls declaration, came to support suffrage for “educated women.”

Stanton and Anthony were incensed when they realized the Republican Party was not going to reward women for all their work during the Civil War — and Stanton said she would not “stand aside and let Sambo enter the kingdom of heaven first”! But it was not Black men who were standing in her way — it was the Republican Party, which did not need women’s votes (white or Black) in order to smash the slavocracy.

The post-Civil War period was one of tremendous growth and industrial expansion. This came at the expense of Native Peoples, the rise of Jim Crow and the suppression of labor struggles. U.S. society was becoming more polarized, and the women’s suffrage movement was not immune from the conservatizing process. Within the suffrage movement professional women were replacing earlier — and more visionary — leaders. The speeches of the newer leaders expressed their antagonism toward immigrant men, who were acquiring the vote while they were being left behind.

Women’s suffrage painted itself into a corner. Politicians were never going to grant suffrage to women without the force of a militant movement, and immigrant men were never going to be won to support a movement in which women of means insisted they were more deserving of the vote. It was to take the combined strength of labor, socialists and Black women of the early 20th century to win women’s suffrage. Not only was there a need for the movement to fight for all women as a principle, but it was also the way to win.

As a revitalized labor movement — to a large extent made up of immigrant workers — embraced socialist ideas, they voted for state suffrage referendums that socialist candidates backed, and helped push the issue back onto the national agenda.

Along a parallel track, the clubs that African-American women built, North and South, to care for the health and educational needs of their community had formed a national organization, the National Association of Colored Women. They saw the ballot for women as in their interests and appealed to the mainstream women’s suffrage movement for cooperation. Although that proved difficult, in areas of the North and West there was the possibility for greater cooperation. Although it was an uneasy alliance, Black women such as Ida B. Wells and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin became spokeswomen for the suffrage movement.

In the end, prominent white Southern suffragists such as Laura Clay and Kate Gordon opposed a federal suffrage amendment because they believed only a “states’ rights” approach could get any Southern state legislature to support women’s suffrage. Gordon was a racist, Clay an accommodationist, but both saw the necessity for maintaining white supremacy by limiting suffrage to educated women, women of property or “white women only.” (See Paul E. Fuller’s Laura Clay and the Women’s Rights Movement)

When should a movement see suffrage for one group as a step forward, and when should it be seen as a setback? For U.S. socialists the defining test is racism. Without an anti-racist perspective, social change in this country, and in the world, is limited. Had educated women’s suffrage passed, it would have allowed women of privilege the vote, not all women.

False Dilemmas

Returning to the New York Times article, Rights vs. Rights: An Improbable Collision Course, the dilemma that Mark Leibovich sets up is a false one. It’s wrong in principle and bad politics to counterpoise movements for social change, as I think history illustrates.

Yes, Barack Obama is an African American in a society where structural racism still exists. Yes, Hillary is a woman in a society where structural sexism is everywhere. But as Leibovich points out, “ .. both Mr. Obama and (to a lesser degree) Mrs. Clinton have been diligent in trying not to identify too closely with either movement.”

Obama’s hopeful oratory, “Yes we can” speaks to a future that can overcome the myriad problems we face. It is a mantra that envisions a society where it is possible to live with dignity, equality and peace. It is a particularly powerful slogan for the African-American community, a people who have suffered disproportionately from joblessness, foreclosure and the destruction of the country’s urban core.

Once Obama succeeded in winning Democratic primaries in one of the whitest states, Iowa, and one of the Blackest, South Carolina, his viability as an electable candidate dramatically shifted. Then the Clinton campaign went on the attack: Bill Clinton, functioning as Hillary’s hatchet man, tried to “blacken” Obama by comparing his stunning victory in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s victories in 1984 and 1988.

Jackson, of course, is a civil rights leader with roots going back to the 1960s. This is a crude attempt to say Obama isn’t a “winnable” candidate because he’s like Jesse Jackson, i.e. an African American, who confronts U.S. society with its racism — and such a person isn’t “electable.”

This remark followed Bill Clinton’s taking the media to task for not challenging what he called Obama’s “fairy tale” position on being against the Iraq war. The language is insulting and demeaning. When Hillary Clinton made such a coded remark about Obama Barack “cheating” in a recent debate the audience booed her.

The Clintons have attempted to contrast Obama’s message of hope and change with the image of the efficient and practical Hillary. The squabble over the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., which the Clintons had appropriated during the Bill Clinton’s presidency and which is now threatened by Obama’s rhetorical talents, echoing MLK.’s magnificent oratory. Thus Hillary Clinton was driven to pointing out that it had taken President Lyndon Johnson to bring about “Dr. King’s dream.”

The message was that Blacks (like MLK and Barack Obama) can make great speeches about hope and change, but change only comes with the practical white president (like LBJ and Hillary Clinton).

Racially loaded, this comparison also falsifies how change occurs. In fact Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because the movement had succeeded in making it necessary that Jim Crow be overthrown. Of course the Clintons never mention how Lyndon Johnson simultaneously escalated the Vietnam War into a full-scale bloodbath, and how Dr, King courageously broke with him on exactly that question.

The race and gender of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates does reflect something of the advance the civil rights and feminist movements have made. But the questions raised about Barack Obama’s religion (falsely labeling him as Muslim, as if that mattered!), and the chants against Hillary Clinton to make the men in the crowd sandwiches, show how deep racism and sexism run in American society.

However, the reality is that both Obama and Clinton, like all the other Democratic and Republican party candidates, are financed by and subordinated to big business.

The call for change, most eloquently articulated by Barack Obama, does have a resonance that recalls the speeches of John F. Kennedy. But the rise of the civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements of the 1960s, and the struggles working people waged in that same time frame, were fires that JFK and the presidents following him attempted to dampen, and then only reluctantly and half-heartedly endorsed.

ATC 133, March–April 2008