Clinton-Obama race: What will the history books say?

Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a debate at University of Texas.
REUTERS/John Gress
Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a debate at University of Texas.

Few Americans would dispute the huge social significance of the close race waged this year by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. But there’s little doubt that opinions vary on exactly what that huge social significance is.

As luck would have it, many of the country’s leading historians are in the Twin Cities this week to help sort things out.

A seven-member panel of history professors will interpret the campaign’s historical importance in a session from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the University of Minnesota campus. The discussion, titled “Clinton and Obama: Historians Reflect on Historic Candidacies,” is free and open to the public in the Cowles Auditorium at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center, 301 19th Ave. S., in Minneapolis.

Panel member Kathryn Kish Sklar offered a sneak preview of the discussion by summing up the tight Democratic Party race as “a double-first.” Still, a closer look at public affirmation of a woman and an African-American as viable candidates for the nation’s highest office indicates that gender-related questions remain, said Sklar, a history professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

One question relates to a popular perception of the president’s role as commander-in-chief, a perception she calls “the masculine mystique.” She wonders whether American voters are yet ready to move past that to elect a woman president.

A pressing addition
The Clinton-Obama discussion was tacked on “at the last minute” to a conference program planned many months earlier because of the topic’s importance, said Ruth Mazo Karras, a University of Minnesota history professor who helped plan the conference. The session is part of the annual Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, a scholarly four-day event that attracted 1,300 history teachers from around the world who specialize in women’s history, gender and sexuality.

As president of the sponsoring organization, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Karras chose the theme “Continuities and Changes” for a meeting that offers dozens of workshops, seminars and special events.

Karras saw change emerge almost unbelievably in the Obama-Clinton campaign as both a woman and a black man became plausible candidates, she said. Many people voted for each of them not because of race or gender but because they liked the candidate’s position on issues or the way they related to voters, she added.  To describe the change she saw in U.S. politics, Karras borrows from a statement Clinton used in the speech surrendering her campaign. “What was so remarkable is it was unremarkable,” Karras said.

Also on tap: women in Minnesota politics
A roundtable discussion on “Minnesota Women in Politics” is scheduled  Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Cowles Auditorium and is free and open to the public. Panelists will include Arvonne Fraser of the Center on Women and Public Policy, Minneapolis City Council Member Peggy Flanagan, Eveleth City Council Member Liz Kuoppala and Pakou Hang, a candidate last year for St. Paul City Council. Other weekend events on the conference program, including an art exhibit and dance performance, are open to the public.

A reception Friday evening will honor women’s history professor Sara Evans, who in 1976 became the first person hired for a women’s history position at the U. Evans is retiring after more than 30 years of distinguishing herself as a teacher, author, expert on second-wave feminism, and other contributions to the university and the larger community. “There’s a generation of her students now teaching women’s history,” said Karras about her colleague. “Academics are supposed to be great teachers, scholars and citizens. She has fulfilled all three.”

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