Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee. When my grandmother was born, women could not vote. Today, for the first time, a major political party has made a female their ultimate standard bearer. On the one hand, to borrow loosely from Joe, it’s a really big, er, deal. On the other hand, ambivalence reigns amongst Democrats and Secretary Clinton is deeply unpopular for a major party nominee.
The history of women in politics suggests it had to be like this.
Female social movement leaders in the US have often been vilified as they pushed progressive, and not so progressive, agendas. Unlikeable, unfeminine, and shrill are familiar adjectives. Within the movements, cross-cutting cleavages of age, race, ethnicity, class, and political ideology of the “how left are you” variety regularly splintered women’s organizing in the United States. Whether change can come from joining government and business or must come from dismantling these institutions is a defining question for all three major waves of women’s organizing. Elite white women have disproportionately benefited from women’s organizing in the United States. And, importantly, while left-leaning men, and men more generally, now theoretically endorse women in power they often undermine or are quick to abandon those women who dare to unapologetically seek office or rank.
Hillary Clinton has experienced all of this. Recall she used to be Hillary Rodham – before voters weighed in that the Rodham was too much. She was the Wellesley graduation speaker – outspoken, challenging, left, and feminist. Yale Law followed and then a move to Arkansas promoting her husband’s career. Vilified in the White House by the right, undermined for “improper” policy role as Frist Lady, critiqued as her husband’s cheating become so very public, ambition questioned when running for the New York Senate seat, boxed in so as not question her own vote on Iraq because of gendered expectations that a woman could not run and win if she admitted a failure on foreign policy, the left’s neoliberal critiques, too hawkish, etc. Institutional Democrats abandoned her, even with all the money, for the Obama candidacy. And now the young left sees her as hopelessly insider while institutional Democratic men and the voters who favor them, have always held her at arm’s length. Bernie Sanders only gains traction because of the ambivalence felt for her on the left (and hatred by many on the right helps explain the GOP embrace of Trump amongst those who know better).
These reactions are telling. Hillary Clinton has worked the highest levels of power. She has worked the Democratic party – bringing a major institution toward her and it required the compromises of insider politics. The right hates her for wanting the power, the ambition. Elements of the left deplore her for the calculation – for going moderate or going hawk as it advanced her.
All this and yet still a major party candidate. And it actually is a really big deal both for the skill, ambition delay, and finesse it took to get here as well as for the disproportionate venom she has felt from the right and far left. Biden and Kerry are her political kin, after all, but garner nowhere near the emotive reactions. They could tell Bernie to just get out. And the party would listen. She cannot.
No other woman in American history has successfully negotiated the cross cutting pressures of the feminist movements that bore her, the party that took years to truly embrace her, and an electorate that is so deeply polarized on her.
There is no denying that she is badass. And that’s a good thing. It got her here. Wounded in some ways, disliked by many, but firmly at the fore. The first realistic female president had no other path. Unfortunately.