The idea of a woman president has been talked about for longer than most people have been alive. In 1956, when John F. Kennedy was a senator, he wrote in Everywoman’s Magazine, the precursor to Family Circle, that the first woman president would possess these attributes: the wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt, the leadership of Joan of Arc, the compassion of Queen Victoria, the cleverness of Clare Booth Luce, the determination of polio nurse Sister Kenny, and the courage of Helen Keller.
He might have added it would help if she didn’t have the baggage of a political figure who’s been in the public eye for a quarter century. That’s part of the arc of history that brought us to this point, the hazing that Hillary Rodham Clinton survived with such stamina and grace to stand on the precipice of victory.
The excitement is not there the way it was for the first black president, but there will be moments, beginning on Inauguration Day, when it will seep into the culture how dramatic the shift is from that long line of white male presidents to Barack Obama and then his chosen successor, a woman whose talents and toughness he witnessed firsthand as he battled her in the 2008 primaries.
This has been too long and too dispiriting a campaign to feel the joy that should accompany such a breakthrough for gender equality. But once Clinton is elected, assuming the polls are right, and she is sworn in and starts moving on the core ideas for the economy and women and children and families that she has long championed, we’ll know that significant change has happened.
Clinton will become a woman president, and not just a president who happens to be a woman. Just as Obama’s special place in history was revealed when he talked about racial issues, or went to a black church and sang “Amazing Grace,” moments that no white president could duplicate, Clinton will become a woman president over time. She will have those moments that more deeply reveal the way she thinks and who she is, which for her has been remarkably consistent over a very long period of time.
Twenty-four years ago, on Dec. 12, 1992, I had a 20-minute phone conversation with her about the changing roles of women, and the significance of having for the first time a first lady with a law degree and professional aspirations of her own. The ’92 campaign had begun with Bill Clinton championing his accomplished wife, saying “Buy one, get one free,” but it ended with Hillary being almost totally muzzled. A cartoon the week before the election had Bill Clinton on stage at the podium, and next to him was a box with air holes. The caption read, “Three more days, Hillary, and you can come out.”
When we spoke, she referred to the 1990s as the “post-modern age,” when we’re trying to reconcile a lot of the changes we lived through in the 1970s, a time of revolution for women, and the 1980s, when women were making real inroads into the work force. She said a lot of women, and men too, are “confused about how to define themselves and their relations to this new world order that is coming up between the sexes.”
She wouldn’t discuss what role she would play in the White House. She said that was “evolving,” and that the criticism directed at her as a woman overstepping her role and becoming too powerful as an unelected spouse was “very politically motivated” and that she viewed it as “a deliberate political strategy or a consequence of these changing times that we’re living in, that I was partly caught up in… I really didn’t take it personally.”
Then as now, viewing the attacks on her and her husband as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” has been a hallmark of Clinton’s survival technique. She will enter the presidency with unfortunate baggage, much of it overblown, but that goes right to the heart of her biggest flaw, her tendency to go into a defensive crouch and tough it out when a little give could avoid a lot of heartache. Now we see everything in those emails she tried so hard to keep private.
From the emblematic headbands she wore in ’92 and the traveling pantsuits she saluted in ’08 to the suffrage white she proudly wore on the convention and debate stages this year, Clinton has defined her path to the presidency in a way no man could have.
When I first started writing about the goal of having a woman president, the conventional wisdom was that the first woman would be a Republican, because that was the tougher party on national security, and a woman would have to prove her toughness. Elizabeth (Liddy) Dole was the media favorite, but her short-lived presidential run in 2000 struggled to raise money and was overshadowed by Clinton announcing she was forming an exploratory committee to run for the Senate from New York.
Young women today are accustomed to seeing women in the Senate, but their presence is a relatively recent phenomenon in the sweep of history. Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas was the first woman elected to the Senate in her own right in 1978, and in 1986, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland became the first Democratic woman. Mikulski liked to say that no man had to die for her to get her seat. Previously, the only women who made it to the Congress were widows appointed to fill out their deceased husbands’ terms.
Mikulski, retiring this year after 30 years in the Senate, once said that electing a woman was inevitable, but only after the men had made such a mess of it, and government resources were so depleted, the new president would be sending out for Chinese food.
There are likely to be more than 20 women in the Senate after Tuesday, and together with Clinton in the White House, they will send a strong signal to women and girls that nothing is holding them back, that the future is there for them.
Mark Siegel, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, says he didn’t think he’d live to see a woman president, or a black president. He’s in his sixties, and points out that we are now growing a whole generation of young Americans who won’t know what it’s like to live under a white male president. What this portends for the future, he says, is that it will be “almost incumbent upon both parties to have a woman on the ticket in the future.” After cracking the glass ceiling in 2008, Clinton came back to finish the job, not only for herself, but for all those little girls, and big girls too, who can see what’s possible.