History Worth Making

Marjorie Dannenfelser
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Posted: Feb 14, 2008 2:46 PM
History Worth Making

Today we celebrate President’s Day during a tempestuous presidential primary season, when appeals to historic role models are starting to fly. At just the right moment, the subject of personal greatness and fine character will trump race and gender talk.

It is a relief. You don’t hear anybody saying, “You know I want to be like Lincoln because he was white,” or “What I find most attractive and compelling about President Roosevelt was that he was a man – and white!” No, this President’s Day, school bulletin boards and local television programming across the nation focus upon the individual characters of individual human beings. Contrast this approach to our current Presidential nomination process where there is non-stop talk about “making history.”

Only fierce political movements could keep the shallow premise of making history by picking a beautiful color or anatomy afloat. Isn’t it obvious? In challenging times like these, when people are hungry for real heroes, the superficials ought to fade. And Martin Luther King’s dream of judging solely by the “content of a man’s character” should be operative.

Now can’t we take the opportunity of this moment to refuel our grounding and motivation for the long political months ahead? We should take a deep breath and consider what kind of history and future we really want to make for our children and grandchildren.

One interesting presidential non-starter was noted last week by Lynn Sherr, ABC News Correspondent and Susan B. Anthony biographer. She compares Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to Senators Obama and Clinton. In 1865, a year out from Election Day, a local New York newspaper put forth the “dream team.” But of course the team was precluded because neither Douglass, a brilliant orator, nor Anthony, a fearless trailblazer, had the right to vote.

What was worthy of emulation was the approach the newspaper took. While it would have made history to see the dynamic duo in office, the editors point to their talents and qualities rather than race or gender. Said the editors of the Rochester Union and Advertiser to a war torn, hero-hungry population:

"Susan B. Anthony and Fred. Douglas have more brains than the majority of radical leaders who, being less honest, figure higher. When universal suffrage and Negro equality render this country the paradise proposed, we shall expect to see Mr. Douglass President and Miss Anthony Vice President of the United States. They would make a strong ticket."

The injustices that Douglass and Anthony faced were grievous personal offences. But they were also public offences. They robbed every American of the greatness of character and political leadership by Douglass and Anthony in public office. The entire nation was denied the benefit of their “brains” and “honesty” applied to public service -- denied because of the involuntary aspects of race and gender. The nation wasn’t hindered by losing out on blackness or female physiology.

Character is a guide to where a leader will take us on issues we grapple with now and issues that may surprise us later. As president of a woman’s organization, I can vouch for the fact that women are not monolithic. What could be more insulting than walking into a room full of women and saying, “ah, I see you are women. I know what you think. I don’t need to ask you your views.”

The issue of abortion in America is a perfect example of this insult. There is a strong trend among women revealing a moral crisis: they recoil against the morality of most abortions. This reality is being publicly discussed and grappled with by the abortion rights movement’s top leaders. And yet political pundits and most political leaders assume and repeat the worn out assumption of the past in most rooms full of women: “Ah, you are women. I need ask no questions! You must support unrestricted abortion. Hey, so do I!”

The standard of the 1865 Rochester Union and Advertiser -- and the Martin Luther King standard --should apply today. Respect for any class of citizens, including women, should come from regard for their characters and values. That’s the kind of history worth making.