Clinton, the First Woman Presidential Candidate, Shows Her Compassion and Toughness, and Meets Bernie More Than Halfway

PHILADELPHIA—Hillary Rodham Clinton is at it again, doing that “first” business. The first first lady to have forged a career of her own and the first secretary of state to have made the rights of women and girls an international cause is now the first woman to win the presidential nomination of one of America’s two major political parties.


In the Wells Fargo Arena, where the Democratic National Convention concluded Thursday, there was not a seat to be had, even hours before the party’s new standard-bearer took the stage. Reporters waited in vain for floor passes that never materialized because others overstayed their floor time so as not to miss one of history’s great events.

The air in the convention hall was thick with anticipation, and women delegates and party members smiled exuberantly. Delight in the moment could not be dampened by the sporadic heckling of protesters, some who pressed the cause for Palestinian rights, others who simply failed to accept the process through which Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont, failed to secure the nomination.

For me, a feminist of the Baby Boom generation, the evening was by turns a climactic moment and a denouement. Momentous because to have a forthright advocate for women’s rights assume the mantle of the party’s presidential nomination was almost beyond imagination. It had been 32 years since U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro accepted the party’s vice-presidential nomination—the last time a woman was permitted to grace a presidential ticket. I was a young staffer at Ms. magazine at the time, and as the race wore on, my initial state of exhilaration gave way all too soon to the demoralizing spectacle of the condescending treatment Ferraro received at the hands of the press, other politicians and the church. It would take another three decades before the party was willing to bet on a woman for the big ticket again—an entire generation of women came of age with no memory of the Ferraro candidacy—and this time the party faithful had called a woman to the top.

Honestly, after all of those years wandering in the desert with my feminist pals, I had all but given up hope that I would live to see a woman presidential nominee, and feared that if I did, she would be a right-winger.

But for me, at least, the grand doings Thursday in Philadelphia also guided us back to earth, as the headiness of aspiration gave way to the practical needs of politics, as if the play reached its climax with the nomination, shifting the storyline to the quotidian labor of winning the election. (Of course, Election Day will be its own play, with its own climax.)

In what is likely a wise judgment call, Hillary Clinton and her advisers apparently decided that in America, a pretty sexist nation, this latest first of hers required a careful combination of two qualities usually seen as opposite: motherly compassion for all the good people who walk the earth, and a cold-eyed, steely strength in defending the nation.

Compassion is a laudable quality in any leader. But in presenting herself as potentially the first woman president of the United States, Clinton has to first prove to the nation that she is, indeed, a woman who embodies the sort of attributes generally defined as womanly. In the language of politics, this sort of testimonial is said to “humanize” her—as if her origin derived from a different species. Consequently, the lead-up to Clinton’s acceptance speech—a video featuring individual people whose lives she has touched in various roles throughout her life, and an introduction delivered by her daughter, Chelsea—were all about Hillary, the womanly woman, the motherly mother. From Chelsea we learned that when she was a little girl, her mom was never far from her. When Hillary’s work took her on the road and away from her daughter, Hillary left a stack of notes, one for each day she was away, in a drawer for her daughter. We learned of the educational games they played, and of all the dance recitals and other childhood milestones that Chelsea's mother never missed. And we learned of the nominee’s very real and important record as an advocate for children and families.

In the video presentation, and on the podium throughout the week, we met everyday people with whom Clinton had connected either on the campaign trail or during her tenure as the U.S. senator from New York. A woman who was wounded in the 911 terrorist attacks. A couple who had trouble making ends meet when the demands of caring for an ailing relative led to the loss of a job. The mothers of young African Americans who lost their lives to police brutality, racism and gun violence.

As much as this was crafted to give the viewers at home insight to Clinton the person, and to draw attention to issues she champions, it also countered the sexist narrative of her put forth by the right (and some on the left) as a power-mad and greedy usurper. It was a necessary setup to an extraordinary speech, one that laid out a progressive domestic agenda (thank you, Bernie Sanders, for pushing Hillary back to her roots), a muscle-flexing posture toward ISIL, and a takedown of her Republican opponent of a sort that is usually left to surrogates in a presidential campaign. Yet in taking Donald J. Trump to task in her own right, Clinton fired a warning shot across the bow; this woman is not one to be trifled with.

“Now Donald Trump—Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do.’ No, Donald, you don’t,” she said. Note that she called him by his first name, while we know he insists that even his close advisers and campaign staff call him “Mr. Trump.”

After noting all of the Trump products manufactured overseas, Clinton quipped, “Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again. Well, he could start by actually making things in America again.”

Her critique of Trump’s temperament was a clever turn of the gender tables, attributing to her male opponent the sort of character weakness sexists often attribute to women. “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign,” Clinton said. “He loses his cool at the slightest provocation—when he’s gotten a tough question from a reporter, when he’s challenged in a debate, when he sees a protester at a rally. Imagine, if you dare imagine, imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

You know who’s been baiting Donald Trump with tweets? Elizabeth Warren, the progressive senator from Massachusetts. Elizabeth Warren, the woman.

Clinton told of how her mother taught her to stand up to bullies. Her mother—a motherly mother, a womanly woman who looms large in Clinton’s autobiography. Clinton also highlighted, among the examples she used of Trump’s bigotry, one of his sexist remarks, making it clear that gender, feminism and sexism are all issues that are on the table in this presidential campaign.

Her speech was important in many other aspects, of course. (Read “Poised and Confident, Hillary Clinton's DNC Speech Lays Out a Progressive Agenda,” by Steven Rosenfeld for more on Clinton’s acceptance speech.) The nominee’s olive branch to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, her descriptions of the many domestic programs for jobs, manufacturing, paid family leave, and an increased minimum wage—all of these added up to a comprehensive vision. And when was the last time you heard a presidential candidate use the words “systemic racism”—as something that needed to be eradicated—in a speech? I’m thinking, never.

While it was always implicit in Clinton’s quest for the presidency that her campaign, regardless which opponent she faced, would stand as a referendum of sorts on the changing role of women in America, with her contest against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has decided to make it explicit. And that’s a brand-new thing for us all.

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