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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Dean, Clark supporters are eager for change

WASHINGTON - Saw a good movie the other night about suffragists and the extent to which some people will go to vote. It helps explain the Howard Dean phenomenon.

The HBO movie, Iron Jawed Angels, which debuts Feb. 15, stars Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, Molly Parker, Julia Ormond, Patrick Dempsey, and Anjelica Huston. It gives lie to the stereotype that the women who fought for the vote were mainly dowagers and battle-axes with little to lose. Alice Paul, rivetingly portrayed by the Oscar-winner Swank, was young, attractive, and spunky, a talented organizer and speaker, totally committed to making women equal citizens.

Eleanor Clift, in her new book, Founding Sisters, notes that the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, did not want women to vote, and most women did not want to vote, frightened by competing with men. When Wilson was inaugurated in 1913, Ms. Clift writes, a woman was the property of her husband. Women could not serve on juries or get custody of their children, couldn't travel alone without losing their reputations, and basically were second-class citizens.

When Paul broke with her don't-irritate-the-establishment sisters and organized parades and pickets in front of the White House, she and 217 others were thrown, unconstitutionally, into jail. She was falsely and cruelly held in a mental ward for going on a hunger strike.

The 72-year struggle by a cadre of tireless women to get the vote ended in 1920. By one vote - from a Tennessee legislator who was admonished by his mother - the constitutional amendment to let women vote was ratified.

The untested newcomers, young and old, who have mobilized almost magically around the country for Mr. Dean, a once-little-known governor of a small state, and, more recently, for Wesley Clark, a retired Army general who popped into the Democratic race for president almost at the last minute, are like the suffragists.

These supporters are eager for change. They yearn for a voice. They work the Internet. They are willing to hand out leaflets in the cold, temporarily drop out of school, or take leaves from jobs, go door-to-door, argue, put up yard signs, work phone banks.

Such enthusiasm springs from years of frustration at the political system, with its $10,000 donor clubs among Republicans, its big-union domination of many Democratic organizations, the never-ending pursuit of campaign funds that jades even the most public-spirited politicians, the poisonous bickering and attack-ad mentality of political consultants. It springs from the demand by the young for results now - no more waiting.

With Carol Moseley Braun's pullout, there are no credible women contenders for the presidency. Some say that even when she was running, there were none - she had no money, no big endorsements, no widespread support.

The recent futile struggles of Elizabeth Dole and Pat Schroeder to be taken seriously as national candidates show the hurdles yet to be jumped before there is a major-party female candidate for president.

But most Americans are now confident that someday there will be a woman president. Someday there will be a black president, a Hispanic president. And those elections will happen, not because of special interests, but because they will be what voters want. As with the suf<0x00AD>fragist move<0x00AD>ment, the groundswells for "out<0x00AD>siders" Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark show a deep-seated belief that change is possible and that it comes from the right to vote.

In recent years, only about one-fourth of those eligible have been voting in presidential elections. Even in time of war, in which we have sacrificed the lives of 500 Americans and thousands of Iraqis in the name of democracy, we may forget how high the price of freedom is, what is at stake every time we have an election.

The soccer moms regaled four years ago were the legacy of women who fought against great odds decades ago so their daughters could vote. So are the legions of those now empowered to vote at age 18, who too often lightly toss that right away. So are minority voters.

It remains to be seen if young voters, new voters and never-before voters, those intrigued by Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark, have staying power. If the going gets tough - as it certainly will - will they stick it out?

The other day, a battered Howard Dean told an audience, "You can only change America when you put yourself on the line and put yourself out there."

The suffragists did. It would dishonor their memory if this year we again fail to do even the minimum, if, once again, only one out of four eligible voters bothers.

The rivulet of a new excitement about politics is hopeful. We'll know soon if it turns into a torrent or dries up and blows away by November.



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