Everyone: Let's Celebrate This Hillary Clinton Milestone

I guess you could call me a sentimental sap. My eyes welled as I sat riveted by the television image of Hillary Clinton claiming the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday night as the primary contests results rolled in—the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party in the United States of America. OK, so maybe even a sob happened.

But sisters and brothers, this has been a long time comin’.

My path to progressive politics came through feminism. In 1984, I was a junior editor on the staff of Ms. magazine as rumors abounded that Representative Geraldine Ferraro of Queens, New York, would be named the running mate of presidential nominee Walter Mondale, the former vice president. It would be a tough run against a popular incumbent, and it was clear that the pick of a woman for the number-two slot was something of a Hail Mary pass. The gender gap in voting had just begun to show itself, and if Mondale was to have a prayer, he’d need every female vote he could muster.

The Ms. editors held the cover image for the October issue in feminist limbo as they awaited word from sources that Ferraro would get the nod. What a thrill it was to hold that issue in my hands, its cover bearing the face of the woman who was to become suddenly famous.

I lived in Weehawken, New Jersey, at the time—then a town populated with many so-called Reagan Democrats, socially conservative Catholic voters from the white working class. My apartment was one of three created by building a few walls inside a modest, two-story, turn-of-the-century house on the edge of an industrial zone. The owner, an elderly man from Italy, lived in the apartment across the hall from mine. We had a cordial relationship until he taped a Ronald Reagan poster to his front window. I taped the cover of Ms. magazine to mine—the issue featuring the face of that proud Italian-American, pro-choice, vice presidential woman nominee on the cover.

When Mr. Facchina removed his Reagan poster the next day, I reluctantly took down the cover.

I don’t believe we ever spoke again.

The selection of Ferraro as Mondale’s running mate 32 years ago was supposed to be a harbinger of great things to come for women in the Democratic Party. After all, the office of vice president essentially exists to provide a president in the event of an emergency and, barring such an emergency, it is common for a former vice president to assume the party’s presidential nomination in future contests.

But I’ve seen a niece and two nephews grow to adulthood without any memory of a woman on the Democrats’ national ticket, and none of us had, until Tuesday night, ever seen a woman clear a path to become her party’s standard-bearer at a national political convention. I had feared my grandnieces and grandnephews would never see such a thing, having stopped allowing myself to believe that it could happen in my lifetime. I couldn’t bear the disappointment of nurturing such a belief. Hope, yes. But belief is another matter entirely.

Democrats who begrudge Hillary Clinton the history she has made, who declaim her feminism as false, were obviously somewhere else when she took on the media in 1992, who cross-examined her for having dared to maintain her career as an attorney while her husband served as governor of Arkansas.

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life," she said.

For that remark, she was vilified as a denigrator of all mothers who did not work outside the home. The criticism came down so hard that she felt compelled to issue a press release containing her recipe for chocolate-chip cookies.

Those who deride Hillary Clinton’s supporters in the 2016 presidential primaries as people who vote with their vaginas apparently missed the part where she led the U.S. delegation to the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women, which took place in China in 1995. That’s where she boldly claimed: “Women’s rights are human rights.” Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal today. But back then, the categories of “woman” and “human” were too often deemed to be distinct from one another (and all to often remain so). Inherent in that statement is the notion that if the state is either trying to control your vagina or sanctioning its violation, that’s a transgression of your human rights. Under such conditions, voting with one’s vagina may just be a pretty righteous and reasonable thing to do.

But as women exercise more power, their roles in society necessarily change, thereby changing the very shape of society and the individual lives of the people within it. Many, both male and female, find this unsettling.

As I’ve written before, I’ve long believed that the right-wing apoplexy over the presidency of Bill Clinton was prompted not by his assertion that he had smoked weed but didn’t inhale, or that he avoided serving in the Vietnam War, or had a history of philandering. It was that he married that Rodham woman and seemed fine with her lawyering around—and even appreciated her giant brain. “Two for the price of one” was how he described, during the 1992 campaign, the benefit she brought to his potential presidency.

Hillary Clinton was a trailblazer for every accomplished woman who knew what it was to contort herself to fit into a gender-confined role. She was a first lady like none who had come before her. In 2000, as she prepared to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, I had the opportunity to sit down in the White House with the first lady for an interview for Working Woman magazine (which has long since ceased publication).

She was impressive, and spoke in full paragraphs about her policy positions, which were largely focused on women and families. It was clear that I would have to let her run through her full course of objectives and talking points before I would get to ask anything resembling a personal question. When the moment came, I pounced, asking how she endured the constant scrutiny and criticism, which seemed to be as much about the changing role of women in society as it was about her as a person.

She paused for a minute. “You know, I stopped thinking about it very much because I want to live my own life the best way I can. And if I think too much about how other people may be perceiving it, that becomes burdensome. ... I want to be as grounded, as centered as I can be, in who I am and what I believe and what I want to help make happen for people.

“I can’t really worry too much about what any one person or any group of people may see in me,” she continued. “I can only keep doing the best I can, and if that provides support or it provides some example to others—not about the way I’m living my life, but about the way I’m trying to make choices that are right for me—then I will be very happy about that.”

Before Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Tuesday night, the campaign ran a video that traced key moments in women’s history. At the podium, Clinton reprised her 2008 claim of having made “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”—the figure representing the number of votes she had garnered that primary season in her battle with Barack Obama paired with the phrase used to describe the invisible barrier women hit when they begin to ascend into the realms of power—before noting that the ceiling had finally given way.

She thanked her supporters, and activists for women’s rights whose work spanned the centuries. She thanked Bernie Sanders for “a vigorous debate.” (Sanders vowed to fight on.) She said she wished her mother had lived to see her only daughter win the Democratic presidential nomination. In between, she took a few hard swings at Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, saying that Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is “code for let's take American backwards.”

Of her mother, Clinton said: “She told me to never back down from a bully—which, it turns out, was pretty good advice.”

Call me a sentimental sap, but forgive my tears. A woman has just won the presidential nomination of one of our two major political parties. An accomplished woman. A woman who can throw a rhetorical punch. A woman who’s made tough choices. And for the sake of all of the women who come after her, that’s a righteously good thing. We’ve been waiting a long time.


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