In Their Time

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When preparing to teach American history, professors are always mentally assembling and revising the names, dates, events, and trends of the past so they make sense and are easy to grasp. One possible thumbnail outline of a course in the great political achievements of the past three hundred years might read: Eighteenth Century—the Freeing of the State; Nineteenth Century—the Freeing of the Slaves; Twentieth Century—the Freeing of Women.

All these freedoms are related, of course, and all of them seem inevitable. But as any student of history or life knows, it all might have been different: The Revolution might have ended with the Founding Fathers hanging from the gallows in the streets of Philadelphia and Richmond; the North might have sacrificed the slaves for the sake of a negotiated peace; male pride might still be standing guard against women at the ballot box and at the gates of every profession. All these freedoms were won in time and might be lost in time—none can be taken for granted.

When Bill Moyers interviewed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently, he asked how she felt about being the first woman ever to sit on the highest court in the land. Justice O’Connor replied that she knew her accomplishment was only possible because generations of women had challenged the assumptions about what was and wasn’t a woman’s place. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for what those other women had done.” Moyers later asked, “Do you think the Founding Fathers would be turning over in their graves...if they knew that the law of the land was being interpreted by a woman?” O’Connor replied, “Well, I think they’d be pretty surprised. Even Mr. Jefferson, who was considered somewhat of a liberal or a freethinker, indicated on a number of occasions that he didn’t think the nation was ready to see a woman in public office, nor was he.”

Several of the stories in this month’s issue tell about the efforts by women to act freely on the stage of history (and to be seen in action by historians who have too often been blinded by their biases). “Women in Their Time,” as the special section is called, includes articles about a superb artist, a remarkable family, an archive of national importance, and a technological paradox that goes to the heart of the so-called quality of life in American homes. Although any of these pieces might have appeared on their own in other issues of this magazine, we’re happy we could offer them all at once to our readers if only to suggest the diversity of the lives and accomplishments of 51 percent of our population.

As for the rest of this issue, we especially recommend Irwin Fredman’s story tracing the patterns of presidential scandal over the years. As the author suggests in a playful discourse, it has all happened before, more or less, and it is all bizarrely predictable. While the very familiarity of the corruption breeds contempt for the wrongdoers, it also breeds a strange kind of pride for the maddening political system that seems to save us time and again from that worst threat to our freedom, the arrogance of power.