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A People’s Charter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—which Martin Luther King, Jr., called “promissory notes”—catalyzed struggles for rights by African Americans and other minorities, industrial workers, women, political, and cultural innovators and dissenters. The resulting new constitutional amendments, Supreme Court rulings, new laws, and changing mores and practices of citizens constitute what the authors call “a people’s charter.”

That charter needs constant expansion, Burns and Burns argue. Too often, “merely formal or ’equal’ opportunity,” without “real opportunity,” has led only to “deprivation and despair” for millions of Americans. In this sense, many government-granted rights have been too narrowly defined. Rights long accepted in other countries—to free, adequate health care, to a job, to child care—are largely lacking in the United States. Any meaningful rights movement in America’s third century must have the power “to thwart the great enemies of . . . real opportunity, such as ill health, low motivation, emotional disability, damaged self-esteem.

Some feminists believe that the so-called “nurturing” or family virtues—love, trust, mutual responsibility—should be the basis for an expanded rights movement. “Thus the household would replace the marketplace as the model for society.” The new model would empower citizens to change themselves, and true citizenship would replace an “outer frame” of duties, such as voting, paying taxes, and obeying laws, at the core of life.

The authors envisage a “Great Majority” dependent on women’s leadership coming to power and establishing a massive rights program. Can it succeed? It would need to overcome fragmentation of rights groups due to geographic separation, single-issue orientation and sometimes, mutual distrust—the opposite of the “nurturing” virtues.