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Are We Really Better People?

Try explaining slavery to a 7-year-old. I tried, but she simply couldn’t understand any part of it. Maybe I’ll wait a few years before tackling women’s suffrage.

She wouldn’t understand that, either. Why should she? Racial and gender bigotry shouldn’t make any sense to her.

Today is the 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women throughout the United States the right to vote. They already could do so in 19 states.

Observation of the centennial has been in the form of celebrations. More appropriate might be a little national soul-searching.

Why, for nearly a century and a half after we declared we were a nation, did we persist in telling women — let’s be honest — that their gender meant they weren’t smart enough to vote?

More to the modern point, do some people, both male and female, continue to have trouble with the idea that all human beings are created equal?

Yes, they do. We see it in racist people and organizations. We see it in “glass ceilings” intended to be impenetrable to women.

I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t subscribe to bigotry in any form — but it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.

Why do a few people still fail to get the equality thing? One of my college professors had a theory regarding racism. Why, he asked during a discussion of the Civil War, did so many poor whites who could never have hoped to own slaves believe slavery ought to be perpetuated?

Simple, he said: As long as blacks could be held in slavery, it meant there was someone the most ne’er-do-well white man could look down upon. He could feel superior to someone.

That explains the persistence of racism. I wonder if it also explains gender bigotry. If women aren’t as smart as men — not intelligent enough to have the right to vote until a century ago — well, the most stupid, shiftless male still has a whole class of people to whom he can feel superior. Imagine the feeling of power some men must have had in telling their wives as they left the house, “I’m going to vote.”

But our great-grandfathers and their ancestors went along with it for nearly 150 years.

Are we — male and female, of whatever race — better than that? Let’s hope and pray we are.

At the same time, let’s keep asking ourselves if we really are better. What alcoholics are told is true: The imperative first step in overcoming a problem is admitting you have one.

Perhaps there is cause for celebration, then — that 100 years ago, Americans admitted officially that we had a problem. Now, if we could just get that thought through every thick skull…

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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