Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Informal reflection on women's rights

This is more of a rambling reflection than a properly composed piece, but I wanted to share something that blew my mind the other day -- even though it really shouldn't have.  The information wasn't anything new; I'd known for years, and yet: you know how sometimes knowledge you already possessed can suddenly hit you with particular and even personal force?  This was one of those moments.  I was talking with my 6-year-old daughter about voting.  I can't even remember specifically how the subject arose -- probably something to do with the election and her interest in the "olden days" -- when I commented that women couldn't vote in national elections until 1920.

1920.

My grandmother -- who, I'm blessed to say, is still living -- was four years old.  My daughter, whose personality resembles her great-grandmother's so strongly it would force one to believe in reincarnation were the elder representative not still with us, is only two years older than that.  The time when she would not have grown up with a right to vote... when I, the political historian (not that I would've been one then) would not have the right to vote... is in living memory.

Ninety-two years.  That's not very long ago.  I've taught many students about suffrage, but somehow it hadn't struck me so personally before now.  My daughter's presence in this conversation probably had a lot to do with that.  It was one of those moments when the professional becomes personal and for a moment I could glimpse just how important it was -- it is -- to protect, to defend and to advocate women's rights... and just how important it is to teach these things.

My students read several excerpts of documents written by women's rights advocates during the antebellum period in preparation for class last week.  In one of them, Sarah Grimk√© spoke of "the disproportionate value set on the time and labor of men and of women"* -- in other words, of wage inequality.  In 1837.  The work continues.

* Sarah M. Grimk√©, Letter VIII, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), in Isaac Kramnick and Theodore J. Lowi, American Political Thought (W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 520.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A few historically-related thoughts on the first debate

I spent the first presidential debate with an enthusiastic group of GFU students, preparing to be an "expert" on the talk-back professor Q&A panel that followed.  Our subsequent conversation was a rich one, and as consequence of all this I took a few notes that might perhaps be worth sharing as one historian's take...

ROMNEY: Proposed returning responsibility for job training to the states.
This sounded much like the "new federalism" of some Nixon era policies--and like the type of thing Mitt's dad, George, would very much have favored.  This concept of devolving power to the lowest practical level is nothing new (indeed, it's been part of the American political dialogue since our founding).  George, however, was equally concerned with fostering interactions between business and government that emphasized mutual responsibility.  Talking about devolution is all well and good (and we do need to keep trying new ideas); how do we put policy into practice?  This is the essential element I felt was missing.  It's an easy sell to small-government advocates to talk about devolution, but without accompanying structure they're just words.  Perhaps the structure of a debate does not allow for such detail, but it was a recurring theme for me, and not necessarily limited to one candidate or the other.

ROMNEY (but Obama didn't challenge this, so in a sense it refers to both): Three percent of small businesses employ half of all small-business employees.
If they employ that great a percentage, how can they still be considered "small businesses"?  Here's an example of where rhetoric (again, not necessarily limited to either side) overshadows critical thinking.  Small businesses are essential and should be protected and encouraged; "small business" has become a shibboleth.

OBAMA: A drop in revenues would lead to severe hardship for people, "but more importantly not help us grow."
Whaaaa?!  I'm sorry, but hardship trumps growth.  Taking care of the least of these is more important than an upward line on the stock market charts.  (I realize one can lead to the other, but the present "recovery" is a good demonstration that the correlation is far from absolute.)  Severe hardship should be a paramount concern for both parties.  Both Roosevelts (TR and FDR) are spinning in their graves...

ROMNEY: "Expensive things hurt families."
Here he was referring to something like taxes, and I'm sorry I don't remember the specifics... but what about such "expensive things" as Social Security and Medicare--each of which he'd spent the past several minutes defending in context of his programs proposals' ability to provide for their longterm stability.  Simplicity in everyday living = good.  Simplicity in politics = often problematic.  The world is more complicated than that.

BOTH: "Middle class families" [times a jillion]
Gee... what about the poor?  What about the working class?  What about single people?  What about empty nesters?  See above comment re: oversimplification.

I realize this is predominantly a list of quibbles, and while critical analysis is important I suspect we'd all be better off if we spent more time appreciating the positive.  In that spirit, here are a couple observations...

ROMNEY: That joke about how delighted Obama no doubt was to be spending his anniversary with him.
I see it as an unmitigated good that with this comment, well delivered and without a hint of malice, Romney demonstrated he has a sense of humor.  Obama has done so on other occasions.  Lightheartedness is, for me, an essential element in a president.  Nobody who can't take or make a joke should have their fingers anywhere near the nuclear trigger codes.

OBAMA: Health care rates have gone up less per year over the past two years than the average rate of increase over the previous 50 years.
First: yay for any deceleration in the rate of health care cost increases.  Second: a long-term historical view!  This pleased me greatly.  Our tendency to see the past as irrelevant to the present and the future harms humanity so.  Any time a politician of either party draws on historical context to give us a deeper and more relevant understanding of the present, I am a very happy camper.