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After The Social Movement, What's Next?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will hear more from some of the folks attending the inauguration ceremonies.

But, now, we are continuing our recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday by stepping back and looking at civil rights and other movements with a wide lens. For many Americans, the success of the nation's first black president winning election and then reelection is the crowning achievement of the movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to lead. But as you might imagine, that is the subject of some intense debate, so we thought we'd ask - not just about civil rights, but other movements - when can its participants put down their protest signs and declare victory?

Joining us to talk about this is Linda Hirshman. She is a political writer and author of "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution." Also with us is Marie Wilson. She is the founder of The White House Project and its goal is to place women in positions of leadership in business and politics, including, as you might imagine, the White House. She is also president emeritus of that group and of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MARIE WILSON: Thank you.

LINDA HIRSHMAN: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Linda, I'm going to start with you because I think this may be the movement that we've heard so much about in recent years because President Obama is the first African-American president. You know, when he was elected, many people said, that is the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and, therefore, we can kind of put a punctuation mark on that movement and say that that part of history is over. Do you agree with that?

HIRSHMAN: No. I don't agree with that. I think that the racial civil rights movement has a very important component, which is economic and social justice and that has certainly not been achieved. As long as black people are disproportionately among the poor, then you cannot say that the legacy of slavery and civil rights in the Jim Crow south has come to a full resolution in America.

MARTIN: Marie Wilson, what do you think about that?

WILSON: I completely agree with Linda on this. When you have the prisons full of African-American men, when you have, actually, a kind of inequity in how land was apportioned throughout history, completely not apportioned to African-Americans and, of course, taken away from Native Americans, that community is always behind in what real wealth is built on, which are assets.

And, for the African-American community, that was so difficult because the people who fought alongside - in World War II - white men, were African-American men, largely, who came back and did not get the benefit of the G.I. Bill and so you have, historically, something that is very hard to catch up with.

MARTIN: Linda Hirshman, I want to mention here that you are a scholar, not just of the gay rights movement, but of other social movements and have studied other social movements, so when can you declare victory? When is the time that you declare victory?

HIRSHMAN: You know, I think probably the founding fathers and mothers almost never survive to the point where you can declare victory. I would say the establishment of representative government in England and America, for example, might be a movement where we could say we've achieved victory. It's extremely unlikely that we're going to have a king again in America. So on Inauguration Day, it's sort of nice to look back and realize that that movement which started in the 17th century could now be declared victorious.

But what happens is that you get big chunks of it. Like, Marie is the head of The White House Project, so getting an African-American president in the White House is - you know, is a pretty obvious marker. But there are remaining residual issues stemming from the history of inequality, which people have to keep working on, even though it feels like it's a very long slog.

MARTIN: OK. But, see, not to be rude, but the title of your latest book is "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution" and part of it is that...


MARTIN: You argue, though, that the gay rights movement, the LGBT movement, has achieved more in a shorter period of time than either the civil rights or the feminist movement. Now, just to refer to people, we did a separate conversation with you about this issue some time ago and, if you want to hear that previous conversation, just go to and listen to it again.

But, briefly, why do you say that?

HIRSHMAN: Well, because they reached the tipping point. OK. The gay revolution has now come to a place where same-sex marriage is just a matter of time. So they have reached a tipping point, and that would be what I would really look for in a movement as the moment of meaningful victory when, in fact, it can't go back again. And I called it victory because I think the floor has been solidly established under that movement and it's now more of a mopping up operation.

MARTIN: Marie Wilson, what about the movement for women's rights, for women's equality and women's advancement? I mean, on the one hand, there have been a lot of victories. I mean, you look at the number of women in prominent positions in corporate America. It's something like 13 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. You look at - we'd had three women secretaries of State, one of the most, you know, prominent cabinet positions. On the other hand, women have never had an equal rights amendment. There's never been a woman president. And the percentage of women in our national legislative body - even though it's in an historic high now - remains much lower than in the number of other comparable countries around the world. So what you say when it comes to the women's movement? Has the women's movement reached that tipping point? Is it time to send a science home? Pack them up?

WILSON: Well, it's very hard to compare movements because when you talk about the women's movement, you know, women were a part of actually every movement. They're part of the gay rights movement. They were part of the civil rights movement. In their own movement I think is still - I mean, our own movement, I should say - is still in a precarious position. We have such a sheroic journey of women from suffrage to where we are now. But we had a moment where there was about a decade of real backlash to that progress because Americans believed that this movement has accomplished its mission. And that is a hard place for a movement because it can keep you - as we've talked about movements - stalled for a long time, because you get an this place where if people think you're ready there, then you have to fight, as we did in this last election, gains that you made 20 and 30 years ago until you get very stuck. And that puts the movement in a different place so that you are actually celebrating this kind of, woo, we made a great gain. We made 1 percentage point again in Congress. So you have to celebrate your successes, and yet you find yourself wanting to yell out 1 percent is not enough. So I think we're in a hard place right now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us on this day when we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., we are talking about social movements in this country, why some succeed and why some don't. With us are Marie Wilson. That's who was just speaking now. She is founder and president emerita of The White House Project. Also with us, Linda Hirshman, author most recently of "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution."

So Linda Hirshman, let me ask you to take that question on, taking Marie Wilson's point that women have been a part of all these other social movements -organized labor, civil rights, the LGBT movement, you know, disability rights.


MARTIN: All of these movements. How do you assess where that movement is?

HIRSHMAN: I mean, women were among the first of the well, the second, after the establishment of America, the second great American social movement, the Abolition movement. So women have been a part of social change in America almost from the beginning. And I would say that Marie is exactly right. There is a brutal cultural drag on an effort to fully emancipate women. And even though formal legal equality has, you know, heavily been achieved, in part, thanks to the great work of people like Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg, the cultural belief system that is the hardest thing to change and...

MARTIN: So you would argue that the movement has not been a success? Or would you? Would you argue that the women's rights movement hasn't been a success?

HIRSHMAN: Oh no. Of course, I would never say it hasn't been a success. I mean, women were allowed to be excluded from juries and forbidden to be bartenders in my lifetime in the 1960s. So from a standpoint of like this formal application of constitutional equality to women, the movement has been a stunning success. But I would say that, you know, women were not structurally poor or structurally ghettoized and so forth. I always say, you cannot move to the suburbs and get away from your wife.


HIRSHMAN: So women were integrated into the society in every way. And it was up to us to change our minds in the minds of others about what the proper distribution of social power is. And that turns out to be a very, very hard task.

MARTIN: But Marie Wilson, about that big prize, you know, the presidency? I mean, your organization is called The White House Project for a reason, which is one of the goals. Are you surprised that an African-American man achieved that goal before a woman did?

WILSON: I have a hard time with that. I come from the South and from the civil rights movement originally, like most of the leaders of my decade of the women's movement came from. And it's very hard with that background for me to say what I thought would happen first. I think it is so individual. For instance, it's very easy now to think about Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. But it was never easy coming from the South for me to see an African-American president or a woman president, one over the other. It had to do with I think the incredible attributes of Barack Obama - to be honest with you - and of Hillary Clinton, that made them stand out. I think America has enormous resistance and I think there is still resistance, by the way, to an African-American president and a woman president that gets stronger as people of colors influence in this country gets stronger.

MARTIN: Linda Hirshman, what about some of the other movements that we hear about now, like the movement for disability rights. Or, I think some people would argue that the abortion is a human rights movement, of people who would argue against abortion rights argue that that's a human rights movement for human dignity. So how should we think about these movements? I know they're all different.

WILSON: Right. So some of the causes that you're talking about, those are very important ideas. But in terms of redistributing real power in America, those movements are not going to redistribute power the way the racial movement and the feminist movement did. To some extent, the gay rights movement is a small group of people and is not threatening to redistribute power in the way that the other ones did. But gay rights threatened the sex role stereotypes and expectation of proper gender behavior. So I would distinguish between noble causes like the disability movement from social political movements that are really aimed at redistributing power.

HIRSHMAN: Can I make an amendment to that? I think there's something just about disability rights and older people's rights that the Disability Act really convinced me of, and that is people are not going to if they're not gay - some transfer, some don't, do not want to change races etcetera - but everybody of they're lucky live, to be old and disabled. And one of the most powerful movements in America is AARP. They don't have to be organized all, so to speak. But I do think there's a little nuance there that the reason we don't even look at older people and disabled people is that that's where we're all headed, if we're lucky.

WILSON: I would not put older people in the same category with disabled people. I think the AARP and the voting behavior of older people has been profoundly influential.

HIRSHMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: The Occupy movement got a lot of attention last year and the year before, you know, brief but intense burst of attention. Marie Wilson, can I get your perspective on that? Well, was Occupy a movement and did it accomplish something?

WILSON: Well, I'll tell you what, from my grown children and their politics, it changed their lives. They got so happy about something actually talking about equality. And I think the issue of the quality and inequality is the issue of our time right now; whatever movement you're describing. But what I think we're dealing with and are in the middle of right now, is the whole idea of a movement is changing. I think sometimes because we have the social movements and often they don't have the boots on the ground movement, they're shorter bursts of energy. They're not these organized long bursts, and so it interests me that way. I think it did its part. But it's not a movement yet because it's a part of all those inequality movements that are cropping up everywhere and it's about the economy. So it's a tougher one.

MARTIN: I think as a final thought on going to ask, Marie, I'm going to ask you this. Do you think that the group that you've worked most arduously for over the course of your career, which is the expansion of women and gaining power for women, do you think that in your lifetime you will be able to say we won?

WILSON: Oh, that was really nasty.


MARTIN: Then we're getting back to the core of this show, is how do you know when you've won? And for my own life and for my daughters and etcetera, the changes because of my age so different I'd have to go back to what Linda said in the beginning. We have won, you know, they have so much more that I've moved that ball a long - we've moved that ball a long. But I can't look at what kind of election and the things that got done and the thousands of initiatives that are still going on across the country around choice, and the fact that we had so much trouble passing a Violence Against Women Act and say that we are going to be able to do this in my lifetime to the point where you say that movement was triumphant. I think we just have to have the patience that a lot of other movements have had in the past and say we have - what is it, your Arlo Guthrie song? You do your part. You grow inch by inch. You're part of it. And I think our part of it has been won.

Marie Wilson is the founder of The White House Project. She is president emerita of that organization and of Ms. foundation for Women. She joined us from our studios in New York. From member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona, Linda Hirshman. She is a political writer and the author of most recently "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution."

Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us. Happy Martin Luther King Day to you both.

HIRSHMAN: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you. You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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