President Obama’s inaugural address captured in one ringing phrase–‘Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall’–the progress this nation has made toward an America where equality and justice for all are realities, not simply pretty words. This year and the next few will all mark milestone anniversaries of events, laws and court decisions that have moved us along a path toward greater individual freedom and equality. It is a legacy most can rejoice in. It is also a legacy that is challenged at every turn, as it always has been.
Those who fear change, seeing it as a threat to the status quo with which they are comfortable, continue to fight against greater acceptance of differences. For this group, the equation is too often one of absolutes, of winners and losers, of either/or opposites that leave no room for win/win outcomes. Speaking forcefully of rights they ignore responsibilities—unless it is to accuse others of ‘lacking initiative and responsibility’. On issues ranging from women’s health to gun control, the rhetoric of individual rights is twisted to deny rights to vast numbers of citizens. Many of these arguments are irrational or without factual evidence; but they reflect a reality within which too many seem to operate.
As someone who has worked for greater opportunities for women and girls for more than four decades, I am both encouraged by our clear, undeniable progress and concerned about the dangers ahead. Change is not a one way street. We have moved backwards or stalled on a variety of rights once thought fully secured. Voting rights, access to safe and legal abortion, sane, sensible responses to rape are all examples of this. In Mississippi, anti choice advocates may soon succeed in drastically limiting access to abortion by closing the last Mississippi clinic providing safe abortions. Women who can afford to travel out of state may have options, low income women will not. The latest and most absurd example of anti choice thinking is a bill introduced in New Mexico. It would charge any rape victim who ends a resulting pregnancy with a third degree felony for ‘tampering with evidence’. The bill is unlikely to pass; but even its introduction boggles the mind.
President Obama spoke eloquently on the work still to ahead to fulfill the vision of the pioneers of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. His address was moving, inspiring and invigorating. But neither an election won, nor the President’s unequivocal support for human rights equals a guarantee of progress. The guarantee resides in each of us as we support national efforts and work in our individual communities, families and workplaces.
Sometimes the hardest work is the work with those closest to us. Clarifying half truths, dispelling disinformation and entering into civilized discussions of issues with those who hold different views is difficult in today’s highly partisan environment. Too often the tone turns ugly before any thoughtful conversation can take place. Differing with the perspectives of family, friends, and colleagues is dangerous to our own status quo, our own comfort. There are times when I find it almost impossible to do. Nevertheless, we must all learn to do it and to do it effectively. If we don’t, if we ‘let it go’ too often, or give up when it gets ‘too hard’ we become, in the old fashioned words of the 1960’s, a part of the problem, rather than a piece of the solution.