When Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, I cried. I’m not afraid to admit that.
Eight years ago, I cried when Barack Obama did the same thing (yes, by defeating Clinton). It’s nothing short of remarkable that an African-American could be the Democrats’ standard-bearer after this country was founded on slavery, on blacks being legally being three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. And not that many decades have passed since Jim Crow and KKK lynchings.
And it’s pretty damn important that a woman will now be the nominee for a major political party in America. Women haven’t even had the right to vote for 100 years. For centuries, most of us couldn’t own property or go to school. This final barrier must be broken.
I say this as a mother of a teenage girl who couldn’t fathom why there were no presidents who looked like her on her old placemat. I say this as a mother of a tween boy who has never asked if a woman is up to the job of running the free world. He knows we are.
But I realized that I was crying mainly as a soon-to-be 40-year-old woman. I’ve been raped and abused. As a journalist and businesswoman, I’ve been stalked, sexually harassed and constantly belittled (one of my favorites is the legislator who suggested I shouldn’t cover abortion legislation as I was a “Vagina-American.”)
One of the advantages of being middle-aged and self-employed is that you’re far better equipped to deal with crass chauvinism and lame attempts to hurt your bottom line. No one’s gotten me to shut up yet, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, boys.
But I thought back to when I was roughly my daughter’s age during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid in 1992. I remember being annoyed that Hillary wasn’t running then. Sure, he had the charisma, but she was so damn smart. Why do so many women wait their turn? Why did she have to backtrack from her crack that she could have stayed home and “baked cookies and had teas” instead of being a badass children’s rights lawyer? Why couldn’t she have declared, “That’s me, take it or leave it”?
That’s the kind of woman I wanted to be. That’s the kind of woman my friends wanted to be. We didn’t want to be married to men running the world. We wanted to run it.
Hillary made a political calculation to wait, though. It was probably the right one. She was coming up in a world that frowned upon her keeping her own name, even though she’d accomplished so much as Hillary Rodham. She faced blowback after promising the American people they’d be getting “two for the price of one” in the White House, even though Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan and Edith Wilson all filled that role behind the scenes.
The conventional wisdom was always that the first female president would be a Republican, our own Margaret Thatcher –– tough on national defense, with the uniquely American twist of an unwavering devotion to God to soften her edges in all the right ways.
Clinton decided to become the Iron Lady herself, first in her outward persona in the face of her husband’s infidelity and impeachment and then in her carefully crafted defense hawk stance and moderate U.S. Senate platform. And finally, she rose above petty partisanship when Obama appointed her Secretary of State, giving her a powerful voice on the world stage.
But she almost derailed herself along the way, emotionally lashing out at the media over her marriage. Her failed 2008 presidential campaign was marred by entitlement and fits of race-baiting by surrogates. Clinton had waited so long and was furious that her chance was being thwarted by an upstart. It showed.
It was a turnoff to me and millions of women. Obama was inspiring and stubbornly immune to tawdry controversies which have plagued the Clintons since their days in Arkansas. My anti-Clinton columns in 2008 (I once declared that she failed feminism) still get me dirty looks from some liberal women to this day.
So what changed for me? The first was covering her on the stump for Obama after their bitter primary. Clinton was utterly gracious and never made it about her, however personally devastated she almost certainly still was. Then there was her partnership with the president for four years. His “Team of Rivals” play worked and she was a far better asset in his cabinet than in the Senate.
And a lot has happened to me from ages 31 to 39. I’m now the mother of a boy. I’ve seen firsthand how insidious sexism can be, from casual remarks about who should do the dishes to rape jokes he hears in school. I worked my way up as a reporter only to hit the glass ceiling and get fired. I run two businesses now and still encounter men trying to put me in my place –– and even allegedly feminist women who still insist I must have a male partner running the show (I don’t).
I have learned that if you are a woman who values herself, who wants to be heard, who wants to change the world, you need to take ownership of something. You can’t settle for being your boss’ work wife –– he’ll almost certainly take you for granted. You’ll be in the office working late so he can enjoy his daughter’s softball game. You’ll think you’re building something together, but in the end, it’s not your company. And you are always disposable.
You need to be the boss. And that’s something Clinton realized, too.
The truth is that it is exhausting being a woman. You are always judged differently, from your tone to your relationships to your shoes. And you can see that all over Hillary Clinton’s face. Few people have taken as many blows as she has. And yet, she’s still here. She’s still fighting.
That’s all any of us can do.
But the real game-changer for me was this revelation. When I was a teenager in 1992, the political climate was better for women than it is for my daughter today.
It was far easier to obtain an abortion than it is now with an explosion of anti-choice laws across the states. Equal pay was a bipartisan issue, with many Republicans as the (no-brainer) issue’s biggest champions. Even birth control –– something 90 percent of Americans support –– is under attack from Congress.
What the hell? The promise of America is progress. And women today are being left behind.
Electing a woman president isn’t a panacea. We have a record 20 women in the U.S. Senate right now and women’s rights are still being rolled back.
But it’s a strong message –– the strongest one possible –– that our rights matter and we deserve a seat at the table. What better way to convey that than having a woman –– and an immensely tough and qualified one at that –– behind the desk in the Oval Office?
It’s about damned time.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.