As Congress and the Minnesota Legislature convene in 2013, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and our forefathers who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution may turn over in their graves, wondering what in heaven’s name the country they envisioned has come to. They wrote, you may recall, “… all Men are created equal.” And they did mean men, white men.
Abigail Adams and Harriet Tubman, on the other hand, might be smiling. Abigail reminded her husband, John, away from home writing the U.S. Constitution, not to forget the ladies. Harriet Tubman, a black woman, guided Southern slaves along the underground railroad to freedom, but not citizenship. It took 19 amendments to the Constitution before black men and all women could vote and hold public office.
Now, not only will Rep. Nancy Pelosi remain minority leader of the House of Representatives, but Barack Obama has been re-elected president of these United States. In this period of thanksgiving we owe thanks to our forefathers for designing a new world not run by kings. We also owe thanks to the 19th-century abolitionists and the 20th century suffragettes for giving all adult citizens the right to vote.
Some changes take a long time, but political movements do have consequences. (Look at the two different Tea Parties.) The late 20th century civil-rights and women’s rights movements concentrated on eliminating discrimination on the basis of race and sex. As a result we are now seeing a new partnership in government and politics emerge. Women and people of color are running for office, winning, and becoming government leaders. In 2013 even the Republicans in the U.S. House will have three women members on their 10-member leadership team, and the U.S. Senate will contain 20 women.
Minnesota was only a gleam in Jefferson’s eye when he signed the Louisiana Purchase, but in 2013 women will be assistant Senate majority leader and House majority leader, and a black man will be deputy leader of the House majority caucus. Ten of the 28 Minnesota House Committees will have female chairs, while six women are due to head the Senate’s 19 committees.
In the years when Minnesota was becoming a state, the United States was involved in the Mexican-American war. Today, Latinos make up 10 percent of the U.S. electorate. In Edina, an affluent suburb, a Latino woman lawyer was elected to the Minnesota Senate, and immigration reform appears to be on the agenda of both parties nationally. Elections do make a difference.
A remarkable transformation
Diversity is what characterizes the new partnership in government and politics. One third of Obama’s 2012 cabinet is female, and our nation’s racial and ethnic diversity is reflected in the whole cabinet. I live in a state legislative district whose representatives are all female. That’s remarkable but few remark on it. In 1920, when women first got the vote, Myrtle Cain, a suffragette and labor union activist, was elected to the Minnesota House from this district. Since then women have held that House seat half the time. Once barriers are broken, cultures change. What was unusual becomes normal, albeit unsettling to those who dislike change.
In 2012, much has been made of how different groups voted in the presidential race, but once Minnesota’s Legislature and Congress convene and begin dealing with specific issues, we will find that individuals and even groups are multidimensional. Our Edina DFL Latino woman lawyer, for instance, says she is a moderate on fiscal issues. Hurricane Sandy made conservatives call on governments for assistance and begin to rethink their views on climate change. Defeat of the voter ID amendment, put forth by conservatives, was helped when rural citizens discovered that administering such a proposal would cost local governments a good bit of money. And reproductive rights are not just women’s issues. Many men care about what happens to their wives or daughters; some right-wingers don’t want anybody messing with Medicaid because even relatively affluent children have parents on Medicaid.
Our forefathers envisioned a new world. Their successors built on that idea, and now we are all partners in facing the issues of today and the future.
Arvonne Fraser is a Senior Fellow Emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and a mother of six and grandmother of seven. She is the author of a memoir, “She’s No Lady: Politics, Family, and International Feminism.”
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