Women Politicians Discuss What Clinton's Nomination Means to Them

Senators reflect on both how much things have changed for women in politics, and how much they haven't

Sen. Claire McCaskill says of the evening Hillary Clinton claimed the mantle of presumptive Democratic nominee, "I probably missed my mother more [that] night than at any time since she died." Credit: Whitney Curtis/Getty, Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty

The night she claimed the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton spoke of how proud her mother, Dorothy Rodham — born the day Congress passed the 19th Amendment — would be if she were alive. 

"She overcame a childhood marked by abandonment and mistreatment and somehow managed not to become bitter or broken," she said of Rodham, who died in 2011 at age 92. "My mother believed that life is about serving others. And she taught me never to back down from a bully, which it turns out was pretty good advice."

Clinton wasn't the only one thinking of her mother that night. A number of top women politicians expressed similar sentiments — a reminder of both how much things have changed for women in politics, and how much they have not. (For instance, women still make up only 20 percent of Congress, and there's been just one black woman in the Senate ever.)

"I probably missed my mother more [Tuesday] night than at any time since she died," Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill tells Rolling Stone. "My grandmother also. They were both amazing, strong, independent women ahead of their time that started telling me as a very young girl that I could be anything.

"They role-modeled blowing up what was expected of them, and doing what was not expected of women. It really made me wish that they could both be sitting there because they would have been so happy," McCaskill says.

McCaskill's mother, Betty Anne, was the first woman elected to the city council in Columbia, Missouri. She got her daughter into politics early, instructing her on the finer points of politicking at a young age. "She's somebody who made me say, 'Trick or treat and vote for JFK!' when I was 7, and had me working in political campaigns when I was too young to really even understand."

What words of wisdom does McCaskill, the first female senator from Missouri, have for young women who may not be as moved by the historic nature of Clinton's achievement?

"Perspective matters!" McCaskill says. Her own appreciation of the moment was shaped by first-hand experience with the obstacles Clinton has had to face. "I've been the first [woman] in a number of jobs I've held, and I suffered through some significant sexism early in my career, and sexual harassment, and barriers, so I know that it has been a struggle — and not as big a struggle for me as it had been for my mother and grandmother, but still it has been a struggle."

She adds, "I have daughters in their 20s, and I try to explain to them that it wasn't always like this, that there weren't always as many women in law school as men, and there weren't always as many women in medical school as men, that this was not the way it was when I was their age."

Other women in the Senate who had similar things to say include Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (one of two states Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders Tuesday), Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. "As other women think about what this means for their daughters, I think about what this means to my mother," Heitkamp wrote on Facebook. "She fought for her five daughters so we would all have equal rights. Thanks, Mom, for fighting for us."

"As a woman in politics who has daughters and granddaughters, I can't help but feel a surge of excitement and emotion around this moment," said Shaheen in a statement.

Perhaps more than any other female politician, Clinton has paved the way for Kirsten Gillibrand, who filled Clinton's New York Senate seat when she became secretary of State in 2009. Gillibrand was inspired to get into politics after watching Clinton deliver a speech at a DNC event, and remembers Clinton challenging the women in the room to run for office, saying, "If you leave all the decision-making to others, you might not like what they do, and you will have no one but yourself to blame.'"

On Wednesday, Gillibrand said she was "inspired and in awe" of Clinton's achievement. "The value of this moment for women and girls across the country and the entire world is immeasurable, and we will be seeing the effects of it for decades to come," she said.

And she may well be right: Studies have shown that when women are elected to a position — state attorney general, governor, senator — more women get elected down the line. "American women have been waiting for this moment for a long time," Gillibrand said, "and we aren't going to let this opportunity go to waste."