It took Hillary Clinton a while to talk about the first-woman-president idea. She didn’t stress it early in her 2008 campaign. But people kept coming up to her with pictures of their grandmothers who got to vote for the first time in 1920. Others begged her to get the job done so they could see a woman in the White House before they died.
The dream sank in.
“Now, I — I know — I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” Clinton told her grieving supporters. It was already late Wednesday morning by the time she gave her concession speech, winner of the popular vote but loser all the same. She told all the little girls who were watching — and there probably still were little girls watching, since the excitement had been so grand — “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
And so it ended. But when we look back on the Clinton campaign as part of history, we’ll see something different from the abrupt, shocking defeat her backers experienced last week. It was a big step in a journey that’s been both inspiring and really, really long.
When history teachers want to include women in the story of the American Revolution, they often have their students read the famous letter Abigail Adams wrote in 1776 to her husband, urging him to “remember the ladies” and write laws for the new country that would “put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty.” The kids are not generally encouraged to move on to John Adams’s reply: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.”
It was, to say the least, going to take awhile — more than a century before much of the country would even begin talking seriously about whether women should be allowed to vote. Nobody at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 seemed able to imagine a female president. When Rochester women organized a follow-up gathering, many of the Seneca leaders were taken aback that there was a female presiding officer. (At Seneca Falls, Lucretia Mott’s husband, James, ran the program.)
The suffrage movement, when it did get off the ground, was … effortful. “To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign,” said Carrie Chapman Catt, the movement leader, reeling off the kind of list that is made only by people who know their ultimate achievement may just be checking more things off the list. (“… 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to urge legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters … 277 campaigns to persuade state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks…”)
Hillary Clinton was the perfect heir to that tradition. “It’ll be a long slog,” she said a year ago, and wow, was she right. After her razor-thin defeat, some analysts wondered if the whole problem hadn’t been how boring her campaign had been. Younger people had seen Barack Obama leap onto the public stage and knock the socks off the country with his compelling oratory, his cool persona and his vision — sort of vague but wonderful — of a new American politics in which everybody would work together for the common good. And then suddenly, there was a black man in the White House. It was an achievement so unexpected that many Americans wept in joy and astonishment.
Clinton didn’t leap — she trudged. The difference between her political career and Obama’s was, in a way, a perfect reflection of the difference between the civil rights movement and women’s fight for equal rights. Historically, black Americans had grown up as a separate group, victims of endless injustice and brutality. When they fought back, the white majority responded with rage and violence. Then, after years of sit-ins and protest marches and bloody freedom rides, the good guys won. Racial injustice, of course, continued. But we’ll never forget that epic drama.
Women had precious few rights themselves, but they weren’t a separate, enslaved group. They were living in the bedrooms and parlors of the male authority figures who were their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. When they rebelled, they were laughed at. The women tried to win over men who were simultaneously their lovers and oppressors with an excruciatingly slow, patient drive to change their minds — remember all those petitions and referendums.
“Our movement is belated, and like all things too long postponed, now gets on everybody’s nerves,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked shortly before her death in 1902.
One 1915 referendum in New York State involved 10,300 meetings, 7.5 million leaflets and a parade of 20,000 people. The women lost anyway. The opposition was urged on by, among others, Newspaper Post. Two years later, when the pressure for national suffrage picked up, the paper argued that the country was at war and that in a time of national peril, “strong men must make the decisions that control policies.” (The man overseeing the anti-suffrage campaign was Charles Miller, whose portrait used to hang in the Times editorial board conference room. When I was the editorial page editor, I used to enjoy walking up to him once in a while and whispering, “Got your job.”)
When the big victory finally came in 1920, suffragists expected a national transformation. The women’s vote was going to mean cleaner government, better education, safer housing and any number of other improvements in the lives of American families. In a quick preview of what was supposed to come, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act in 1921 — a modest program to educate poor women about child care and establish clinics in impoverished rural areas.
In 1929, Congress repealed it. Women, it turned out, were voting much like their husbands — on the basis of their ethnicity, economic class and geographic location. It wasn’t until the 1980s that pollsters began to notice a gap — that women voters were more interested in domestic programs like education and the social safety net. They leaned Democratic, but they didn’t play gender favorites. This year, with the first female nominee pitted against a man who was practically defined by a tape recording about his girl-grabbing exploits, many people expected that the long-awaited “women’s vote” tidal wave would finally arrive. Still didn’t really happen.
The women’s movement, meanwhile, had transformed the country. Abigail Adams’s letter finally got the proper response — a flood of legislation guaranteed legal equality in everything from jobs to college sports. It was a whole new world, but with men at the top. In 1964, when Margaret Chase Smith ran for the Republican presidential nomination, much of the country found the idea bizarre. One Los Angeles Times columnist argued that presidential candidates should be 45 to 55 (Smith was 66) and noted that, unfortunately, women that age were going through certain unmentionable changes that made them unreliable.
Yet it made a difference. A young Hillary Rodham opened Life magazine and found Smith’s story. “I had no idea there was such a woman,” Clinton recalled.
Shirley Chisholm, the congresswoman from New York, tried next. If people assumed that black presidents or women presidents would wait until some vague point in the future, Chisholm decided “it was time in 1972 to make that someday come.” She was the first woman to run on the Democratic side, a fine symbol but not a serious contender.
And then there was Hillary Clinton. She was, in many ways, inevitable. If the first women elected to Congress were frequently taking the seats of dead or retired husbands, there she was, a former first lady. If the road to political power for women involved a century of slogging, she was the epitome of the dedicated slogger. She was the secretary of state who logged 956,733 miles and visited 112 countries in four years on the job. And while there had certainly been critical missions, a whole lot of those miles were dedicated to encouraging low-profile strivers. See Clinton chatting about chickens with a Kenyan woman farmer, and you’ve got a historical echo of Eleanor Roosevelt helping West Virginia homesteaders shop for their first refrigerators.
Millions of women who voted on Tuesday could remember a time when their credit cards had to come in their husbands’ or fathers’ names, when a female physician was so rare she would inevitably be referred to as “the woman doctor,” and when the presumption that women needed to be home during the day taking care of the house was so pervasive that a few states still used all-male juries. Many felt that the final, righteous ending of the story would be a woman in the White House.
Now some of them may be worried that they’ll die before a woman is ever elected president. Perhaps Hillary Clinton thinks that, too. But in this whole long, long amazing story, we celebrate the steps. Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to vote, but this year on Election Day, women stood in line to put flowers on her grave.
Sometime soon, there’ll be another woman presidential nominee. Maybe she’ll be in the Clinton tradition, the grand and glorious American worker bees. Maybe she’ll just leap out, like Barack Obama did, a fresh face with a new message. All we can know now is that when we talk about how she got there, we’ll be telling Hillary Clinton’s story.