The list of calls I had to make was numbing, long enough that it settled itself into a simple routine. “Hi, my name is Erik, and I’m calling for Jim Scheibel, your DFL candidate for Mayor of Saint Paul.” The 1989 election was going to be close, so Get Out The Vote (GOTV) calling to loyal Democrats was even more important than usual. But just as I let the routine propel my calls with their own mometum the soft yet gravely voice of an old woman stopped me cold.
“Oh, dear, you don’t have to remind me to vote. I’ve been voting ever since they let us.”
I didn’t know how old she was until that moment, but this snippet of a story was just enough to round out who she must be. We talked briefly about how wonderful it was to see a new generation working for the DFL cause, but I had so little to add. Hers was a voice that could say so much more than I ever could.
I’ve told this story to my kids many times. They understand the simple wonder of its meaning, a lesson that isn’t really all that difficult or profound. All it says is that women haven’t been treated as full citizens for much longer than one lifetime, meaning that we’re still within historical shouting distance of a time that is a bit too horrible for us to contemplate. Women had hardly any rights at all? They couldn’t or even hold property in many places? Yes, it wasn’t that long ago.
This came up again while we were watching “The Civil War”, a series that is a bit much to drill into kids until they are ready for it. I’ve been trying, and the kids get a little bit more out of it each time. What I want my kids to understand is how difficult it once was for us to do what seems obvious now. I hope they can see how foolish and bigoted we’ll all seem one day and come to understand that this is just the way real progress goes.
They have their own ideas, however. It seems strange to my daughter that slaves were freed before women and that that the Civil Rights movement came before the Women’s Rights movement. My first thought was to point out how recent Gay Rights is compared to both of them, but as I thought it over I realized that there was something more fundamental in this question.
Every society can only take on so many things at once. Progress is made one issue, one right at a time. When there is so much work to be done, where do you start? The short answer is that society has to start somewhere. It matters far less where you start than whatever constant forward progress you can make.
I think of this as I see the marches in Iran. They know where they want to be and they know exactly what it is that they want to take on at this time. There are so many things that their world could change if it wanted to, just as we could change many things about our world. What matters is that they have started the forward progress with the clarity of purpose that will see them through to the end. They will succeed because, as Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible”.
If we were to ask for one thing to make our world better it would be that same clarity of purpose and single goal. We’ve shown many times that we can achieve amazing things when we are so focused. It’s just a matter of what we think is the priority, right now.