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Whose turn is it?

So whose "turn" is it? The black man or the white woman? Despite the 24/7 polling, the swooning pundits and the campaign's much-analyzed "momentum," it's still not clear who will be the Democratic nominee. The only certainty is that whomever prevails, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, this will be a historic election, one of those prized "firsts" dear to the heart of cable news and newspaper columnists.

But what's the history behind the "historic"? The Obama-Clinton contest touches a deep nerve in American progressivism going back to the early days of the nation.

In the late 18th century and during the first half of the 19th, abolitionism and feminism made common cause. It made sense to the likes of Mary Wollestonecraft, Harriet Martineau, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass that the liberation of the slaves and the liberation of women should go together. Americans may have fought a revolution to forge a "free" nation, but that was for white men. It was time to take the founding documents at their word.

The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women was organized by noted anti-slavery campaigners such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Frederick Douglass showed up to argue for a resolution demanding votes for women, and later wrote in his North Star newspaper, "in respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man."

After the Civil War, however, progressives disagreed over who should be first in line for those inalienable rights. Should it be women (this meant white women) or former slaves (as long as they were male)? Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted the two were inextricable, but a number of other old abolitionist comrades figured that the white men in Congress, who mostly didn't want either women or African-Americans to get the vote, might stomach one but not both.

Radicals fought among themselves and it got ugly. Activist Theodore Tilton proclaimed it was "the Negro's hour," but Susan B. Anthony said she'd "sooner cut off my right hand than ask for the ballot for the black man and not for woman." Douglass felt that the dehumanization and violence of slavery gave black men a superior claim. After all, as he wrote in 1868, "woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land:" she can "influence" fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. But when Stanton heard that Douglass had abandoned her side, she wondered publicly why white women of "wealth, education and refinement" should stand aside for "illiterate" and "untutored" black men.

Stanton and Anthony refused to support passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, offering equal protection under the law and voting rights — for men, that is. For a few years, African-American men could cast ballots, run for office and act as citizens. By the 1880s, though, the South had got rid of federal troops and Reconstruction officials and passed Jim Crow laws to put former slaves back in their place.

Americans are often reminded of the struggles (poll taxes, "literacy" tests, night riders, bombs) the descendants of slaves had exercising their constitutional rights. We commemorate the Selma to Montgomery March and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., knowing that African-Americans could not vote in large numbers until the 1960s. Women got the franchise in 1920. That's long enough ago to seem uncontroversial, though the conservative commentator Ann Coulter recently opined that women should have the vote taken away because they "irrationally" favor Democrats.

Now, 160 years after Seneca Falls, 140 years after the schism over equal rights, America may have come full circle. Whatever the tensions in progressive politics over whether to support the black man or the white woman, the very candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent victory for the old coalition between race and gender. After all, who has the other side got? Yet another white guy, chosen from a field of white guys. Up in the celestial caucus room, Frederick Douglass is giving Elizabeth Cady Stanton a high-five.

Diane Roberts is a former Times editorial writer and the author of Dream State, a book about Florida.

Whose turn is it? 02/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 8:55am]

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