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Kunin: Words Matter

(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is a former Vermont governor who hopes that President Obama's recent inaugural address will inspire Americans to keep working toward a better future for all.

(Kunin) They say speeches don't create change. They are wrong. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King knew that words matter. They changed the course of a nation. They inspired us to act, to end slavery, to fulfill our dreams.

And just when we thought that we were incapable of action, and skeptical of dreams, Barack Obama's inaugural address aroused us from our stupor, lifted up a nation that had been downcast, and reminded us to look up at the one sky above us. We are made for this moment, and we will seize it, he told the millions who focused on every word.

If Martin Luther King were alive to celebrate his birthday, he could not have dreamed of a re-elected African-American President calling us to complete the journey that King had begun. We the people no longer means what it once did - when this nation was founded by a select cadre of white male landholders.

Obama sang his words when he re-defined who we, the American people, are today.

We,the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears; through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.

Those were the turning points for women's suffrage, civil rights, and gay and lesbian rights. At the time, each milestone was fiercely contested with cruel rhetoric and physical violence; but having extended citizenship to women, African-Americans, and gay and lesbian Americans is making us a better nation.

Again and again the President reminded us that our journey is not complete.

Not for one moment did he shy away from controversy; he declared, We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Many observers pronounced it a liberal speech. I saw it differently. I did not see it as either liberal or conservative. To me it was a speech that reflected the best of American values, originally written down by the founding fathers, and reframed for our time to be inclusive, to embrace every American.

Had the old definition of we the people prevailed, would we have a Supreme Court Justice named Sonia Sotomayor swearing in the Vice President? Would we have an openly gay inaugural poet, named Richard Blanco?

I suspect not.

Most certainly, we would not have just re-elected an African-American President.

Weare a stronger, more egalitarian nation because of Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall; but, as Obama reminded us, the journey is not complete. It is we, the people, who must exercise our rights as citizens of this great democracy, to continue to move forward. Thank you, Mr. President, for showing us the way.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, and author of "The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family," published by Chelsea Green.
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