Kiel Hawk, Columnist

Jan. 1, 2013 is not just a date to mark on the calendar because of the impending “fiscal cliff.” Rather, New Year’s Day next year bears significance for at least a couple of other, less ominous reasons. It both marks the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and also the first day when Maryland will legally allow gay marriage. Unlike the ongoing financial debacle, these are both causes for celebration, and they symbolize the intellectual and ethical growth of our country.

It’s ironic that the “fiscal cliff” will likely overshadow both of these noteworthy events, as talk of the economy, federal deficit and how to balance the budget over the last several months has similarly eclipsed discussion of other important topics. It was refreshing to see, however, that this election perhaps more than any prior, was testament to the rapidly changing tide in American sentiment on social issues.

Sometimes it’s difficult amid the struggle to pinpoint the moments when big changes are upon us. Other times, you can feel it. Certainly, those who were paying attention felt it on Nov. 6.

Voters in both Washington and Colorado passed laws that decriminalized marijuana possession. The drug has been outlawed for almost a century in all states, and countless dollars have been spent on its prohibition. Marijuana was originally prohibited out of the grace of ignorance, political motivation, racism and fear. The rationale for legalizing it, economically and ethically, far outweighs any attempted justification for keeping it illegal.

Washington also led the charge on another ballot issue: the legalization of gay marriage. This year, along with Maryland and Maine, Washington became one of the first three states to legalize gay marriage through popular vote. A total of nine states now allow gay couples to wed, but the first six did so through legislation and rule of the courts. Passing a popular vote in favor of gay marriage is encouraging, and it will hopefully pave the way for more of the like.

And not only are states on either coast becoming accepting of homosexuality, but Wisconsin became the first state to elect an openly gay senator. As Tammy Baldwin became the first elected openly gay person elected to the Senate, she joined a growing cast of females in the halls of Congress. It took 140 years after the founding of our country for a female to get elected to such a position. Now, women occupy 90 of the 535 seats: 17 in the senate and 73 in the house. In fact, it was a record year for women in politics, and these numbers will go nowhere but up in the near future, as they should. And while we are on the subject, we quite possibly will have a woman as commander in chief in four years in the form of Hillary Clinton.

How exciting is it to say that we could not only be the first to appoint an African American and female president, but to do it back to back? Whether you voted for Barack Obama or would vote for Hillary Clinton is beside the point. The point is that it took so long for either to even be a remote possibility, but both those days are finally here.

Rich, Caucasian males should have no more inherent freedoms than either women or African-Americans, or any other ethnicity or type of human being for that matter. Yet upon the founding of the United States, voting rights were restricted to white males that owned land, blacks were property and only counted as three-fifths of a person and women would not be able to vote for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

Look how far we have come. From the Emancipation Proclamation to the Lilly Ledbetter Act; from the 19th amendment to the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’; from Jeannette Rankin to Tammy Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of the election of the country’s first black president, it’s evident that we are making progress. I have no doubt that these changes are getting us closer to a more perfect union.