How Hillary Clinton Made Women's History

Clinton has long grappled with whether and how much to highlight her gender, but she embraced it Tuesday night

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How Hillary Clinton Made Women's History
Hillary Clinton celebrated her historic victory with a speech in Brooklyn Tuesday evening.

A misty-eyed Hillary Clinton strode onto the stage at Brooklyn's Navy Yard Tuesday evening, shortly after clinching the New Jersey primary, with promising leads in two other states, and she did something that she has often been loathe to do: She fully, unselfconsciously celebrated the historic nature of her campaign. Clinton jokingly promised not to smash the (partial) glass ceiling she and her supporters were standing under, before thanking them for helping her become the first female nominee of a major political party.

Technically, Clinton made history Monday evening, reaching the 2,383 delegates needed to secure a spot at the top of the Democratic ticket, according to the Associated Press. The Clinton campaign was caught a bit off-guard by the early announcement.

But they were prepared on Tuesday, with a video that ran before her speech featuring archival footage of women suffragists marching — she would later tell the audience her mother was born the day that 19th Amendment was ratified, 95 years and three days earlier — plus footage of feminist icons like Shirley Chisholm, Dolores Huerta and Gloria Steinem. In one corner at the Navy Yard, supporters held up large cutout letters that spelled "HISTORY." Even her Twitter avatar was updated to display her face between the words "History made."

The moment was particularly striking given that throughout her political career, Clinton has grappled with whether and how much to highlight her gender — it can be a fine line to walk between exciting voters about her historic achievements and turning voters off. A 2015 EMILY's List report urged her to "[d]e-emphasize the 'first' talk.

"They already know she'd be the first woman president… we don't get anything by reminding them," it said.

She rarely mentioned her gender the first time she ran for president, in 2008. This time around, she's been somewhat more upfront about it, but wary at times of overemphasizing its importance. "At the end of the day, being the first woman president can only take you so far," she said in a recent interview with New York magazine. "What have I done that can actually produce positive results in somebody's life? Do we have more jobs? Are people's incomes going up? Have we made progress on the minimum wage? What have we gotten done on equal pay? What are we doing on early childhood?"

That view is shared by many of the young women whose support she's hoping to earn. Polls show she enjoys a huge advantage in women voters over Donald Trump, though throughout the primary, most younger women have broken for Bernie Sanders. Many of those women don't see a woman president as being so out of reach; it's going to happen, so it doesn't necessarily have to be her, the thinking goes.

The history of women running for the highest offices in the land can help put that thinking in context. The first woman to run for president was Victoria Woodhull, in 1872, nearly 50 years before women across the country would be given the right to vote. Woodhull, a fortune teller, stockbroker and editor of her own newspaper, published a column announcing her intention to run in the New York Herald.

"I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset," Woodhull wrote two years before she was formally nominated by the Equal Rights Party. "But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow."

It took another 144 years for the idea of a woman president to be taken seriously enough that she could clinch a major party's nomination, but Woodhull's words — particularly about the lack of enthusiasm that would greet a woman's candidacy — were prescient. 

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, was able to generate sufficient excitement about her campaign to win 28 delegates in the primary, and 152 electoral votes at the Democratic National Convention. Twelve years later, Geraldine Ferraro, a school teacher and lawyer before she ran for the House of Representatives, became the first woman on a major-party ticket. Ferraro, one of several women considered, was selected as Walter Mondale's running mate with hopes that the prospect of a woman on a the ticket would generate needed enthusiasm for his campaign. Mondale got an early boost from the announcement, but it was eventually drowned out by questions about Ferraro's foreign policy experience and her husband's rumored mob ties. Only 22 percent of American women polled at the time were excited about Ferraro's addition to the ticket; almost as many — 18 percent — viewed it as a "bad idea."

After that, of course, came Sarah Palin. Widely considered a Hail Mary for John McCain, Palin was brought on to help bridge the seemingly insurmountable enthusiasm gap for his candidacy relative to Barack Obama's. In the direct aftermath of the Republican National Convention, when Palin made her debut, Republicans' enthusiasm about McCain jumped from 42 percent to 60 percent, helping the pair temporarily leap-frog Obama-Biden in the polls. Palin drove McCain's numbers higher, then dragged them down with her lack of foreign policy knowledge, among (many) other things. One postmortem study estimated his selection of Palin ultimately cost McCain two million votes. 

We shouldn't be surprised, then, if enthusiasm for Clinton's historic feat has been tempered during the primary, among some demographics. That lack of enthusiasm might be a good thing. When women like Ferraro and Palin were plucked from relative obscurity and placed on past presidential tickets, they were there as — for the lack of a better word — tokens. They were gambits that didn't pay off. Both generated small boosts of excitement that ultimately fizzled out when questions arose about their fitness for office. Clinton's detractors can pick from a wide variety of legitimate criticisms about her, but no one can claim that she — a former U.S. senator and secretary of state — does not have the domestic or foreign policy experience a president needs. No one can claim she coasted through her career using her gender to get ahead.

And yet, that's exactly what Donald Trump tried to do with his claim that Clinton was relying on the "woman's card." That argument rang hollow for thousands of women who have experienced first-hand their gender being a professional liability rather than an asset — which is exactly why Clinton was able to turn that attack into her best fundraising push of her campaign. She raised $2.4 million in three days off the remarks. 

It's OK if some women (and men, for that matter) aren't particularly enthusiastic about the historic nature of Clinton's candidacy. It's more important, for Clinton, if they recognize her as having a long track record of support for women's rights — as some 47,000 new donors appeared to after Trump's comments. And it's important they see her as the polar opposite of Trump: He's said women should be punished for seeking abortions. His stance on equal pay is, "You're gonna make the same if you do as good a job," though a recent report found that Trump's campaign pays women significantly less than men. He's a man who says businesses have to be "careful of" offering paid family leave because it will make them less competitive. 

Though Clinton hasn't always emphasized the significance of her candidacy from a gender perspective, she has consistently emphasized her stances on reproductive rights, equal pay and paid family leave. As Clinton said after Trump's comments, "if fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in."