The symbolism in President Obama’s use of bibles owned by slaves, by Abraham Lincoln and by Martin Luther King during his inauguration ceremonies offered clear and compelling testimony to a remarkable achievement over the past fifty years. We Americans can be proud. The fact that a black man was elected not once, but twice, only a generation after the civil rights movement took hold in this country is an amazing statement about what we are capable of. Watching Mr. Obama take the oath of office amidst throngs representative of America’s diversity was a moment that will long be remembered by historians and long be cherished by those of us who served as witnesses to our time.
The changing face of America is present as we consider other milestones representing progress over the last fifty years. Not the least of these momentous events relate to women’s struggle for equality. Fifty years ago, for example, a report issued by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women – a body established by John F. Kennedy two years earlier – documented substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and made specific recommendations for improvement. These included fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care – extraordinary ideas in their time. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than a man for the same job. We may not be there yet on all of these measures, but we are well on our way.
The year1963 also saw publication of Betty Friedan’s iconic book The Feminine Mystique, an examination of women’s lives after WWII that ignited the women’s movement known as second wave feminism. Friedan, a journalist who had researched what became of women in her graduating class from Smith College, set off a firestorm of feminist angst when she wrote about “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the depression and sense of isolation college-educated women trapped in post-war American suburbs were experiencing. Friedan went on to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) which led to the formation of other feminist organizations that continue to fight for women’s equality and human rights.
In the prologue to her book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution Susan Brownmiller wrote about the birth of the women’s movement. Her words now seem prescient within a wider context: “Although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with stubborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions … This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously …a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations [emerges]. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a social transformation.”
The second inauguration of President Obama, it seems to me, is a beginning, a start to something as new and fragile as a newborn baby, but a baby that will thrive and grow so long as it is nourished, well cared for, loved, and guided toward healthy development as it matures into own identity. There was something in the air that sunny January day, something quietly powerful that began to take hold. It wasn’t the wild enthusiasm wrapped in impossible expectations we saw four years ago. Rather, it was an almost somber knowing that something positive and full of potential was afoot. We sensed ourselves on the verge of a finer America in the words Mr. Obama spoke. We saw the real possibility of the kind of change that is within our grasp.
In part that is because of rapidly changing demographics, a new sense of urgency about the earth we live on and the world we inhabit, a newly emerging set of priorities, and a Republican party that has become the architect of its own demise. But beyond that, I believe there is something we are poised to become, something that calls forth our better natures, something that the Mayans might have meant when they said the end of 2012 would bring forth a new era.
I know how hard it will be to achieve the kind of future I’m suggesting might be on the horizon. But I think there are visionaries with enough courage who can serve as the successors to previous rebellions that changed the course of history.
We can start small and begin that ripple “that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations.” We don’t even have to reach the boiling point. Our “exploding passion” can carry us forward. The best part is we can all be counted among the visionaries. All we need is enough courage to ignite the social transformation that seems to have already begun.