Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall
President Obama’s inaugural address was brilliant. The conceit of using “We, the people”–a phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that Americans really love–to stretch the reach of the imagined American community was beautiful.
It was also a brave speech in many ways. I was particularly struck by his remark that the American journey toward democracy had led from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall. I suspect many observers outside America (and some inside) will not realize what those place references mean: they were the locations where turning point events in the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement, respectively, took place. So, just by mentioning those place names, Obama was making an inclusive gesture toward the diversity of American democracy, saying that “We the people” includes women, blacks, and LGBT folks, along with the mainstream white middle class Protestants who have always claimed to be “America.”
The deeper message, so beautifully framed, resonated with me because of some things I learned about democracy when researching Fresh Lipstick.
When I began, I really did not know that much about 19th century American history. And what I did know was, not surprisingly, the history of white, male, Protestant gentlemen, mostly from New England. Because that is what they teach in the schools, of course. (It has always made me laugh that Americans will refer to “the Pilgrims” as their ancestors, even if they are African-American, Mexican-American, Catholic, French, or, as most Americans are, some now-unidentifiable mix).
I was wanting to tell the story of American women in my book, but I was especially looking to tell the stories of marginalized women, those females who had not been included in the white middle class vision of feminism that had previously been put forward. And that meant going very deep and using source materials that no one had used before. It meant looking at the histories–new at the time–that had been written about ordinary people, immigrants, slaves, Native Americans, and so on.
What I learned about democracy from this exercise gave me new respect for my country, actually. It is quite true, for instance, that the founding fathers did not actually mean all men were created equal (though they certainly meant men). And so every group outside the male aristocracy has had to fight for the right of inclusion in all those lovely phrases about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And, on the other side, those Americans who were already included wrestled to redefine themselves in a way that joined forces with those they had previously despised.
There has been a lot of ugly conflict over such matters, but there have also been, repeatedly, moments where “We the people” rose to the occasion, stretching their arms a little further than planned, in order to encompass some previously excluded group. And it was those moments that Obama was invoking.
Being “created equal” is not something a country can just declare and have it be so. A true democracy is something a nation becomes. This is the American experiment, the real American dream. To this day, I respect the imagination and fortitude of my forebears, both those were included and those who sought inclusion, for taking that journey. In that sense, they all were indeed true pilgrims, if not Pilgrims.
I feel it is important to understand how hard this journey has been, yet how central to the American experience. But it is something many people–especially some Americans–do not realize. They think that somehow a static covenant was made 200 years ago and that everyone who comes knocking now is just an unwanted intruder.
The United States has looked pretty ugly at times during the past ten years. I have been embarrassed and shocked many times, especially by the Tea Party and by the attempts to roll back women’s rights. But I keep trying to hold the long view in my imagination. This kind of ugliness has always happened in America. But the journey from Seneca Falls to Selma and Stonewall continues.