It was still all bubbly, balloons and rainbows last week — specifically Thursday night in New York City, where the leaders and foot soldiers of the LGBT rights movement joined Vice President Joe Biden for a gala celebration of their June 26 marriage victory at the U.S. Supreme Court.
I almost didn’t have the heart to call Minnesota’s Richard Carlbom as he was preparing to attend and suggest that we talk a little social-movement history. Almost.
Carlbom was the chief tactician for the campaign that convinced Minnesota voters to reject a same-sex marriage ban in 2012 and persuaded the Legislature to legalize such unions six months later. More recently, he’s been the director of state-level campaigns for a national organization that just put itself out of business, Freedom to Marry.
For a fellow who’s newly unemployed, Carlbom seemed quite upbeat. A landmark 5-4 victory at the Supreme Court evidently can have that effect. His mood didn’t darken even when I brought up a pattern discernible in the history of the Minnesota women’s movement. It suggests that when a social-justice movement coalesces around a dominant goal and achieves it, it is at risk of dissipation. Victory is no guarantee that more progress is imminent.
Consider: The first-wave women’s movement arrived in the 19th century not long after Minnesota statehood. It soon boiled down to votes for women. Those early feminists achieved a small victory in 1875 when Minnesota women were permitted to vote in school board elections and serve on those panels.
But rather than leading to wider suffrage, that victory seemed to stall the movement. Minnesota was not in the vanguard of states pushing Congress to launch a constitutional amendment allowing women to vote. It did not open its polls to women until the 19th Amendment made women’s suffrage the law of the land in 1920.
Mamy Minnesota women eagerly trooped to the polls that year. In 1922, the first year in which women could run for the Legislature, eight did, and four won. But then the movement sputtered to a near-standstill. A few suffragists tried to rally support for a broader feminist agenda; their leader, Clara Ueland of Minneapolis, died in 1927 in a weather-related accident on her way home from a day at the State Capitol lobbying for workplace protections for women and children.
Much of that agenda would still be waiting 45 years later, when women again arrived at the Legislature in numbers sufficient to be considered the “second wave.” Its many aims soon clustered around more professional opportunity for women. Between 1970 and 1990, that goal was largely achieved — and again, the movement’s energy waned.
There’s talk of a third wave now, one that would change what happens inside all of those professional doors that women opened a generation ago so that employers and institutions better serve both genders. But regaining a social movement’s lost momentum isn’t easy.
Can the LGBT movement avoid slowing down?
“That’s a really important question,” Carlbom said. It’s one he expected to discuss with other Freedom to Marry leaders after Thursday night’s revelry quiets down.
Much remains to do, he said. “Winning marriage hasn’t brought full equality for LGBT people — far from it. There are still 33 states in America in which you can be fired for not being straight. We still need national anti-discrimination laws.”
Such protections have been in Minnesota statutes for 22 years. “But there’s work to be done in Minnesota, too. Violence against the transgender community is a serious problem. We have the responsibility to talk about why our transgender brothers and sisters are victims of violent crimes at higher rates, and how we can make sure our communities are safe and secure for everybody.”
Finding a way to engage same-sex-marriage supporters and inspire them to pivot to a larger anti-discrimination agenda before their attention gets diverted — that’s the trick. That’s the idea behind Freedom to Marry’s new successor organization, Freedom for All Americans. Carlbom says it’s going to attempt to sustain and build on the assets of the marriage movement — volunteers, donors, community organizations.
If he can pull that off, my guess is that Carlbom won’t be unemployed for long.
I didn’t want to tell him that the Minnesota Women’s Suffrage Association had that same idea when it morphed into the Minnesota League of Women Voters in 1920. The suffragists couldn’t pivot quickly enough. League chapters flourished in just a few places, keeping a candle burning with which to rekindle a feminist fire decades later.
But the LGBT movement’s story may be different. Clara Ueland didn’t have social media. Richard Carlbom does.
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Permit a parting shot of history: On Monday, DFL Reps. Lyndon Carlson Sr. of Crystal and Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis will surpass the late Rep. Willard Munger’s record of 15,532 days in office and become the longest-serving Minnesota House members in history. Kahn was among six women who were elected in 1972, heralding the arrival of the women’s movement’s second wave. Both Kahn and Carlson are fully engaged lawmakers, willing and able to help propel a third wave.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.