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Monday, June 09, 2008

Obama's feminist heritage

It seems to me that the true significance of Obama’s success has been overlooked. The op-ed pundits and instant historians have been all over the "First African American presidential candidate of a major party" definition.

Sure, that’s important. But what is even more striking is the symbolism of his bi-racial heritage.

In my mind, Obama stands with Tiger Woods and Halle Berry as vindication of the 1960's liberal faith that integration was going to lead to progress.

I remember whispers during the Civil Rights Movement rasing the specter of "miscegenation" as the horror that might flow from integration. Schoolbooks like "To Kill A Mockingbird" and Hollywood films like "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner" were liberal responses to the nightmare of black male sexual power that was always used as a potent psychological card played to strike fear into white society.

Progressives persevered, idealistically hoping that integration in schools and housing would finally overcome fear of the unknown. This faith is at the heart of all liberal philosophy, which holds that opening doors for all is the cure for society’s ills. The Civil Rights laws of the 1960's ratifying equal protection in voting, work, housing, and education, asserted that hope.

Almost immediately, the hope faded and reaction set in. Assassinations, the Viet-Nam War, and impatience led to a resurgence of the Black Separatist Movement that had thrived during the Jim Crow era with alarming militant faces scowling on the newly pervasive television: Malcolm, Huey, the SLA, which gave excuse to reactionary vitriol from whites. The anti-busing rebellion of the 1970's exposed the soft underbelly of liberalism.

While the Civil Rights Movement floundered in the 1970's, the feminist movement found its militant voice, taking over the media with protests, organizing, fights over abortion and laws against discrimination in the workplace, education, and in social discourse and manners.Gender issues leapfrogged racial concerns, in part because the power women were able to muster far outstripped racial politics if only because of the sheer numbers of votes at stake.Hillary Clinton symbolizes for many the assertion of that power.

I can see the frustration of women who feel denied the symbolic culmination of the battle for gender equality. Feminists understandably resent being passed over for promotion to the job that might finally shatter the most impenetrable ceiling in American history.

It is certainly arguable that gender bias is even more entrenched in American culture than racial animosity. The 15th Amendment (1878) recognized the right to vote for Negro MALES, while no woman was granted that right until 1919 with passage of the 19th Amendment, a span of 41 years. (Ironically, the amendment was ratified in time for the 1920 presidential election. The next three winners were Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. So much for "progress".)

It is a tempting melodramatic irony that the son of a practitioner of feminist freedom eventually defeated the nation’s symbolic feminist.

Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was apparently a product of and exponent of her generation's history. Born in 1942 in Kansas, she rebelled against the conformity of small town midwest orthodoxy. As perceived by her son, she was an ardent feminist, admirer of Martin Luther King, intellectually curious about other cultures. Her life — as perceived by Obama in his autobiographies — is almost a classic journey of the liberal ideal.

Her journey reads as an odyssey of an epowered woman, making choices to pursue excellence in her field, asserting iconoclastic independence, challenging traditional assumptions about womens' roles. Reading between the lines, it seems that her choices caused problems for her son that he would have to overcome with enormous difficulty. Divorce, dislocation, blended families, rootlessness -- issues familiar to many of our children.

Obama’s self-identification as "African-American" is a choice he made consciously after having struggled with defining himself through most of his adolescence. The search to find one’s place is an old and very common human experience, well understood as being especially hard in the face of discrimination for perceived differences from the accepted norm.

Youth is a time when discrimination first stings with agonizing power. Differences as subtle as personality, appearance, manners, or family can be just as devastating to forming individuals as race, religion or sexual preference.

Obama’s sense of his differentness must have been particularly sharp. As he himself describes it, he went through the agony of facing up to whether to accept the definition his peers thrust upon him, or some other kind of identity. Seeing himself as "black," he toyed with the perceived norms of "black culture" in its negative as well as positives. He tried the rage, the self-destructive drugs, sports, denial of his articulate intellect.

Certainly, he must have recognized that his biracial heritage, his multicultural upbringing, the diversity of his education and exposure to diverse world views could become a strength when tempered by his intellect.

Ultimately, he came through the crisis with the enormous ego and confidence that makes him such a formidable presence.

The charisma Obama seems to have for young people must stem from a generational sense of identification with him similar to my generation's intuition about JFK. The talking heads have observed with amazement that the phenomenon that his "blackness" is not "an issue" for young people. I've heard politicians who announced their support for his candidacy by saying that their children urged it.

I suggest that it is not only his "blackness" that young people are unconcerned with, but also his differentness. And that my generation should be proud that for all the mistakes we made and failures to measure up to the ideals of our parents' "Greatest Generation", this may be the most important legacy.

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