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by Carol Gilligan

Excerpted from The Sixties and the 2008 presidential election by Carol Gilligan. Originally published in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture by Routledge.

How do we remember the 1960s? … The ubiquitous peace symbols, the strollers with banners proclaiming “another mother for peace,” the mass demonstrations and the exodus of young men to Canada attest to the groundswell of opposition to the culture and psychology of militarism. The hypocrisy of patriotism, the lies and distortions of democratic values, was matched by the hypocrisy of puritanism, and the call for peace was joined by a call to free love from deceptions and double standards. Such were the culture wars of that time.

- Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Flacks, The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, & Democracy's Future.

Last spring, at a conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Harvard Women's Leadership Project, a recent alum wanted to know if I considered myself a feminist. I said I did and asked if she wanted to know my definition of feminism. She nodded, and I went on to say that I considered feminism to be one of the great liberation movements in human history: it is the movement to liberate democracy from patriarchy. A woman subsequently emailed me that this was the one thing she wrote down during that weekend.

Like feminism, the 1960s have gotten something of a bad rap, being seen now as passeacute or dismissed as an era of “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.” Yet it is impossible to think about the election of Barack Obama or to reflect more broadly on the 2008 campaign without recalling the remarkable accomplishments of that time. Without the Civil Rights Movement and the call to non-violent resistance, without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Obama's election would be inconceivable. Without the women's movement and the achievements of second wave feminism, the success of Hillary Clinton in gaining 18 million votes to run for president would be unimaginable. An African American and a woman as the leading Democratic candidates for president, followed by Obama's overwhelming electoral victory - this is a legacy of the 1960s. And the call for “change we can believe in,” galvanizing the political activism of a new generation, reawakened the hope for transformation: the desire for a different voice, a change in the terms of conversation.

Seen in this light, the election of 2008 is a watershed in the ongoing struggle between democracy and patriarchy: a victory for democracy, a triumph of democratic over patriarchal manhood and womanhood. The culture of democracy, based on equal voice and open debate, won out over the culture of patriarchy, with its associated ills of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of intolerance. The culture wars that raged through American society in the years following the liberation movements of the 1960s signal the intensity of the fight on both sides and serve as a reminder of how much is at stake, in both our private and our public lives.

Given the worsening economic crisis and the rise of fundamentalism, the future is by no means certain. Yet I choose to align myself with the hope and optimism of our new president, a man whose manhood is not steeped in militarism, who resists hierarchy, who is committed to listening across political divisions, whose politics is not based on demonizing enemies, who is less vulnerable than more patriarchal men to perceived insults to honor that reflexively elicit violence, a man who developed his liberal and humane values in relationship with his mother and her parents and went on to form a vibrant relationship with a woman clearly his equal. In Dreams from My Father, Obama identifies a “strong, true love” as what saves men from the “male cruelties” that destroyed his father. In all these respects, he shows us a manhood that is democratic, not patriarchal, a manhood allied with a womanhood that is neither idealized nor devalued.

What patriarchy precludes is love between equals and thus it also precludes democracy, founded on such love and the freedom of voice it encourages. The deepest historical significance of the 1960s may lie in the convergence of efforts to free democracy from the vestiges of patriarchy. The democratic manhood of Barack Obama aligns his presidency with feminism, seen not as a problem of women or men or as a battle of women versus men but as a key to realizing the vision of a truly democratic society. He has brought a different voice into the political arena, one that has found remarkable resonance. Asking us to “choose our better history” and enlisting our better selves, he may, with luck, lead us to form a more perfect union.

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Excerpted from The Sixties and the 2008 presidential election by Carol Gilligan. Originally published in The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture by Routledge.

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Related links at Feminist.com:

  • Conversation with Carol Gilligan

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