All eyes will be on Hillary Clinton when she speaks tonight at the Democratic National Convention.
Media pundits and McCain loyalists will be parsing her every word, scrutinizing her every nuance, analyzing every element of her body language for quite a different reason. They love a political food fight. They’ll pounce on any whiff of tepidness, real or imagined, in her support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. The Republicans have even set up a “Happy Hour for Hillary”, lying in wait to whip up animosity toward Obama, whether their spin is real, or if all else fails, conjured up by their Rovian attack dogs.
But while talking heads will strain to see any shred of conflict between the Democratic nominee-to-be and the second-runner, some of us will be looking at the occasion with what the Tohono O’Odham people call “long eyes”.
The historic significance of the first time a woman came close to winning a major party’s presidential nomination gives special meaning to the serendipity that today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day –the 88th anniversary of American women’s right to vote. And the fact that Thursday, when Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech, will mark the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, gives the Democrats powerful symbolic bookends unmatched by any convention in recent memory.
In her own elegant speech last night, Michelle Obama observed that she herself resides in the intersection of advances that have been made for both women and African Americans, acknowledging Hillary’s “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”
and Dr. King’s dream.
On Women’s Equality Day, it is important to note that history always has long eyes. The movement to get women the right to vote began during the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. It took 72 years of diligent organizing, continuous campaigning, and courageous speaking out before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was adopted. Only one attendee of the Seneca Falls convention—Charlotte Woodward—was still alive by then; she cast her first vote at age 81. I thought of her when Senator Ted Kennedy spoke so movingly about his long quest for universal health care in his extraordinary “season of hope” speech that brought the convention to cheers and tears just before Michelle spoke.
In the face of charges that women were too emotional to be entrusted with the serious act of voting (or alternately that women would just vote like their husbands, so why bother giving them the franchise), the suffragists persisted until they prevailed, and female citizens of our nation achieved that basic right of free people: to have an equal voice in electing those make the laws and policies that govern our lives.
Because of the suffragists, and all the courageous activists like Clinton who’ve taken up the torch and run with it to ever-greater height, women have reached a power point unparalleled in our nation’s history.
Sure, Hillary must feel a sense of disappointment that she’s not breaking that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in politics. So do I and many of the women who ached to see a woman president in our lifetime. There’s no substitute for a clear win. But Hillary Clinton is a great leader precisely because she sees with long eyes that, while history is important, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” in her mentor Eleanor Roosevelt’s words.
Women in years past couldn’t have even dreamed of Hillary’s candidacy, let alone more subtle advances: Ted Kennedy mentioned gender as one of the divisions our nation must overcome so that “the dream lives on”; the Democratic platform for the first time highlights sexism as an injustice that must be rooted out; even greeting card companies are putting out Women’s Equality Day cards these days.
And everyone says that because women vote in greater percentages than men and are more likely to be swing voters, women will determine the outcome of the general election.
There’s much to celebrate this Women’s Equality Day. But John McCain’s inherently anti-woman agenda places in sharp relief that there is ever so much more unfinished business we must still act upon every day going forward. I anticipate Hillary Clinton’s speech will urge us convincingly to see our way clear to do exactly that.