I still remember the night Barack Obama won the presidency. I was with people who, like me, could never have imagined that an African American could become president. The joy in the room was palpable. The impossible had become a reality. When Pete Seeger sang “The Land Is Your Land” at Obama's inaugural, it seemed as if anything was possible.
That is how many women of my generation feel today. Hillary Clinton has won the nomination, and it’s hard to imagine her losing the election to the loutish, egotistical Donald Trump.
I think back to when I began teaching women’s history at Berkeley in 1969. Students were stunned to learn that at the first women’s convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had to argue vigorously for women’s right to vote. When I described how Susan B. Anthony traveled the nation fighting for suffrage, insisting “that failure was not an option,” they could hardly imagine anyone caring so much about voting.
But the vote was important; it implied a kind of independence women had never before experienced. For many men—and women—it meant that women would, for the first time, have a separate relationship to the state. No longer would the men in their family mediate their relationship to the government.
It took 72 years for women just to get the right to vote. For that simple symbol of citizenship, they petitioned the government, marched through streets, tied themselves to the White House fence, went on hunger strikes in prison and a few became martyrs and died. In the end, it came down to one man in Tennessee whose mother wrote him and begged him to ratify the suffrage amendment to the constitution.
Those who had fought for so many decades were jubilant. But they knew that the vote didn’t guarantee economic, social or political equality. And so, during the years between 1920, when the vote was ratified and the emergence of the modern women’s movement, women fought for better working conditions, for social justice and for greater equality for women in every aspect of American society.
President John F. Kennedy certainly didn’t mean to start a women’s movement but he owed women in the Democratic Party because they had worked so hard to get him elected. So he created a Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1963, the Commission released its findings: in every profession, occupation and job, women were undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated. The data they collected could not be denied. Soon, the states began their own commissions and the findings were all the same. No matter what women did, they always suffered from their status as second-class citizens. The assumption that men would take care of and protect women meant nothing to widowers, the divorced or the poor. In newspapers, classified ads still published jobs for men and women on separate pages.
By the mid-'60s, millions of women began to feel a restless need for change. This is when Hillary Rodham was in college. Equality for women was in the air, inspired by a civil rights movement that had fought against the idea of racial supremacy. If races were equal, why should women accept male superiority? Questioning all authority was omnipresent as young people learned how the government had lied about why the nation was at war in Vietnam.
This was the political world in which Hillary Clinton grew from a complacent Republican to a Democratic who devotes herself to advocating for women and children. Like other women of her generation, she suffered much ridicule, not to mention the unbearable embarrassment her randy husband created by betraying her over and over again. But she didn’t give up. The truth is, she understood that Bill Clinton was not merely her husband; he was a popular president whose political capital would help shape the rest of her life.
So she pressed on, working to improve the lives of families. At the U.N. Conference on Women in 1995, she gave a rousing speech that demanded, for the very first time, that women’s rights are human rights.
People weren’t always sure they liked her. A strong woman, a feminist, who stood by her man? It seemed paradoxical. But it was also smart and led to her career as a senator, and then to the president’s cabinet as secretary of state.
If you consider her extraordinary experience—as first lady, senator and secretary of state—she is remarkably qualified to become president. From her extensive travels, she knows dozens of leaders around the world, understands the world of the Oval Office, and is all too familiar with the slings and arrows that fly through the nation’s capital.
The truth is, she is the most qualified individual—not just woman—to be president.
I never thought this would happen. Ever since the late 1960s, I thought a woman might become president during my lifetime, but I assumed, as was common in my generation, that she would be a conservative Republican, not a woman known for her liberal causes. Why? Because the backlash against the '60s made it almost unthinkable for a liberal woman to become president. Bill Clinton was the only Democrat, aside from Jimmy Carter, who broke through the Republican victories, and he moved to the center and even ended welfare to stay in the White House.
When I first voted, I didn’t think about the suffragists who had spent their lives fighting for my right to be a citizen. None of us cared; we didn’t know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote brilliant speeches that were then given by Susan B. Anthony. It wasn’t part of our experience.
The young women of today similarly take for granted all the opportunities second-wave feminists made possible. And why not? Hillary Clinton and the rest of her generation worked to change laws and customs so that another generation could move on and challenge what remains to be changed.
Someday, my grandchildren will take for granted that a woman can become the president of the United States. And so they should. Today, however, we bear witness to an historic moment, as we did when Barack Obama became president. The legacy of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement has not changed the wealth inequality that still crushes millions of Americans. That is why Bernie Sanders has mobilized so many young people. But whatever you think of Hillary Clinton’s politics, this is a time to stand back, and remember how women have been excluded from our political culture. Finally, America will very likely have a qualified woman as its president.