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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

We Have Overcome

The first of several notable things last week was Hillary going over the top. I have expected it for a long time -- but it is historic, and we should pause to reflect. I remember when Geraldine Ferraro became the first vice-presidential nominee. That was much more of a surprise, and dozens of us gathered on short notice in a Seminole Heights backyard to toast with cheap champagne.

I went to that spontaneous party with the late Helen Gordon Davis -- whose tastes in champagne and other things never were cheap – but Helen, who then was a state representative, was willing to get down to the level of other feminists. At this time last year, she was in the last stages of dying. It’s even sadder to acknowledge that it has been decades since she braved the ridicule of conservatives to make positive change, especially for women. No one has truly replaced her in that role.

Geraldine Ferraro is dead, too. That night in 1984, I thought progress would be much faster. I never would have predicted that 32 years – 32 years! – would pass before we finally had a woman in the top spot. Our daughter was in elementary school then, and now she’s a law librarian for the Department of Justice and close to middle age. This week’s scene was very different from that in 1984, and if there was a celebratory party, I wasn’t invited. So it was meaningful to me that on the night of the California primary, a woman I met in Tampa NOW in the early 1970s called with tears in her voice, saying she hadn’t been sure she would live to see the day. A lot of those NOW members didn’t.

And Yet

I rather thought I would live to see the day -- but then also I thought that back in 2008, when Hillary won more primary votes than Barack. The guys who ran the national Democratic Party, however, threw out the votes from Florida and Michigan to declare her the loser. It’s not accidental, I think, that the party then was run by Howard Dean -- someone analogous to Bernie Sanders in the way both men dismiss as an unimportant aside the real barriers that women must overcome. In fact, equal pay for women would solve many of the economic problems that Bernie emphasized, but how often did you hear him mention that?

I don’t think it’s coincidental that now, when we finally nominate a woman, the party is run by Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- who earned her way in government while bearing twins and surviving seven surgeries for breast cancer. She doesn’t mention that, so I will. It’s important to know, especially important for young women who often have to combine personal and professional lives, especially reproductive lives, in ways that most men never contemplate.

So I was very disappointed during the primary season to see young women support a 74-year-old white man over the astonishing woman that Hillary is. They seemed to reject the point of having a woman at the top of government as passé – even though we’ve yet to achieve it! They behaved as if they thought it cool to support someone simply because he called himself a socialist -- even though his congressional suffix always has been “I” for Independent, never socialist with a capital “S.” Particularly on gun control, the “I” easily could have been an “R” for Republican. Mostly, he was proud to be a contrarian and outlier. He reminded me of Ralph Nadar, who cost Democrats the White House in 2000 with his ideological purity and unwillingness to negotiate.

That sort of independence doesn’t work in government. More than any other office, the president has to listen to everyone and find ways to make goals work. That’s not to say a candidate doesn’t have principles, but he/she has to understand that others also believe they are principled, and it takes time and effort to come together and to write legislation that will be adopted.

No one knows that better than Hillary, who has spent more than two decades working for an improved health care system. Rejected out of hand in the 1990s, it finally was adopted fifteen years later, when she had moved on from the Senate to the State Department. Still, just an election ago, Republicans were waving the red flag of repeal at their rallies – but not in Congress, even though they have a majority of both houses.

I think that’s because they don’t really want to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. They know it is working, and they hope that you don’t notice this major change in their agenda. I wonder what will be in that agenda when they gather in convention. It will be very interesting to see what does get into their platform on this and other issues. Can they cite anything at all that will be positive? College tuition? Affordable housing? Trains like those in Europe and Japan? Better relations with other nations? Or will they rail against President Obama’s trips to Cuba and Asia? Will they still predict death panels on health care and other scenarios in which the sky is falling?

I know I’ll wait in vain for an acknowledgment that it was under the Obama administration that we killed Osama bin Laden, but for the first time ever, I intend to watch every night of the GOP convention. I’m agog, waiting for the next surprise in this amazing year. Good times a-coming.

The Boxer and His Namesake

The old Simon & Garfunkel song about the boxer and his name ran through my head last week as we said farewell to Muhammad Ali. Again – what change! When he and I were young, I never would have envisioned the send-off he got last week. He was Cassius Clay then, and he refused to go to the Vietnam War. Instead, he allowed himself to be arrested for draft evasion, and the boxing establishment stripped him of his earned titles. Sports commentators almost universally condemned him, and especially after he converted to Islam, even many of his African-American friends deserted him. Yet last week, I was surprised to see even ultra-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah say nice things about Ali. You have to wonder.

I’m not into sports, especially boxing, but I bring this up because I’ve long wondered if when Ali changed his name in 1966, he had any idea of who his namesake was. He famously called “Cassius Clay” his “slave name.” That was all I could find on the topic, so I don’t know if he knew that Cassius Clay was once a hero to black people. Ali was from Kentucky, and so was the rich and powerful Clay family. Its first nationally known member was Henry Clay. You doubtless remember him from your high school history: he was the third part of triumvirate that dominated government during the mid-nineteenth century, when slavery was the burning issue.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina headed the pro-slavery forces in the Senate; Daniel Webster of Massachusetts led anti-slavery senators; and Clay was termed the “The Great Compromiser” because he tried to prevent the Civil War by mediating between them. His legislative package, known as the “Compromise of 1850,” included something for everyone, and in fact, it postponed the war for a decade. But there was no powerful president in this era, and as these senators aged, the war came.

Cassius Clay was a generation younger, and although he shared the same slave-owning family as Henry Clay, Cassius worked to abolish slavery. While a Yale student in the early 1830s, he heard a speech by the later-famous foe of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, and became an ardent abolitionist. Cassius Clay ran for office in Kentucky several times as an abolitionist, winning some elections and losing others. Beyond that, he published an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington – which met so much opposition that he armed his office with weaponry, including a cannon!

Pro-slavery men nonetheless ransacked it, destroying his business and forcing him to move to Ohio. In the 1860 election, which was all about slavery, Cassius Clay supported Abraham Lincoln. The president appointed him minister to Russia, where he worked on the purchase of Alaska. He supported liberals of both parties in the 1870s – but his family had him adjudicated insane prior to his 1903 death.

A Bit More

I want to add a third generation of that interesting family. Sisters Laura and Mary Clay founded the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (E.R.A.) in 1880, and they regularly attended meetings of the national organizations that aimed to enfranchise women. Two other sisters, Mary Clay and Sally Clay Bennett, were newspaper columnists and testified on women’s rights before the Kentucky Senate. Their chief plea was that women be granted custody of their own children in divorce cases. That still was a radical idea, and many women stayed in terrible marriages because they otherwise would lose their children.

The three unmarried Clay sisters described themselves as “practical farmers,” raising diverse crops and livestock on 300 acres and supervising “workmen, both white and black.” This gave them a keen awareness of women’s property rights, and their “Equal Rights Association” emphasized these laws over the vote. Despite regular lobbying, they did not win reform on this until 1894, long after most states had rewritten property law. Perhaps the most telling example of “conservatism” was that the E.R.A. repeatedly failed in their lobbying to raise the “age of consent,” the age at which a man can justify himself in a rape trial by arguing that the “woman” gave her consent. In Kentucky, that age was 12.

So, again, history is complicated, but knowing it can help heal old wounds. I doubt if Muhammad Ali knew any of this. I especially wish that he had known about Cassius Clay and the cannon in the newspaper office.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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