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Too many lasts for a first-world nation

American won’t be one until we are finished with ‘firsts’

By Leigh E. Rich

In January, Democratic Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald will become Colorado’s first female Senate president.

An elated Fitz-Gerald told well-wishers on election night—referring to her husband, John—that “for the first time in Colorado, we’re going to have a first lady who’s a man.”

Fitz-Gerald’s colleague, Sen. Peter Groff, also will have the honor of a first … the state’s first African American president pro tempore.

And around the nation, the list, I’m certain, could go on and on.

It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that entertainers Denzel Washington and Halle Berry accepted Oscars for best actor and best actress for their films Training Day and Monster’s Ball. In fact, it was only 2002—more than seven decades after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began handing out the golden figurine.

Yet Washington and Berry were the first African Americans to be awarded the highest honor in their industry.

Considering the fact that the first gold-plated Oscar was dispensed in 1929, that’s an awfully lengthy road to travel.

How far have we come since then?

An article featuring former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder in the mid-1980s is quite telling. Schroeder, who was a young mother when she entered office in 1973, was asked when she thought America would see the first female president.

Certainly not anytime soon, the congresswoman conceded. But surely by the turn of the millennium.

Boy, was she wrong.

Though Schroeder herself ran in the 1988 Democratic primary for the country’s most venerated slot and New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro earned the Democratic nomination as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, neither broke that glass ceiling.

Sadly, though Schroeder had 12 terms under her belt and had blazed the “freedom trail” for women to be both politicians and procreators —“I have a brain and a uterus,” she once said, “and I use both”—she wept when she pulled out of the race and hasn’t quite lived it down since.

Who knows when America will follow in the footsteps of England and Israel and elect a woman as chief?

But my point here isn’t necessarily a pro-feminist one. Heck, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. House all the way back in 1917—granted, the country was almost a century and a half by then.

Rather, my first thought when I heard the news about our very own Joan Fitz-Gerald was, “When will we be done with firsts? When will that cease to be the headline?”

Thinking about our nation—ideologically, of course—I have to think that we won’t truly be America until such firsts become commonplace. Until we pass the markers of first female president, first African American, first Jew, first Native American, first homosexual, first, first, first … insert any descriptor here.

Don’t get me wrong: As an anthropologist, I certainly value and think we ought to celebrate America’s vast diversity. I wouldn’t want us to blend together in some sort of melting pot that reduces all of us to some kind of bland chicken stock.

But I also would like to see us revel in our great assortment with a sense of all men having been created equal. And women, too, of course.

As a fan of history and science, I could never quite wrap my brain around the melting pot idea anyway.

What have Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and William Wells—all proponents of evolution by means of natural selection—taught us? That heritable traits don’t blend together from the parental generation to that of the offspring. In other words, that your mother’s blonde hair and your father’s black hair didn’t mix together to give you a shade of gray. (No, the recent election season did that.)

So why should we expect that a coming together of cultures and ethnicities would ever produce a blended—and bland—America?

Heterogeneity makes us strong, biologically and politically.

Though I do hold out hope that President Bush will make good on that promise to reunite our divided nation and, in my lifetime, I’d like to see our nation’s “firsts” become old news. 

Rich, L. E. (2004, November 19). Too many lasts for a first-world nation: America won’t be one until we are finished with ‘firsts.’ The Colorado Statesman, p. 2.

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