Hillary Clinton's Feminist Triumph

Carolyn Kaster/AP

PHILADELPHIA—Several hours before Hillary Clinton accepted the presidential nomination on stage at the Democratic National Convention, women leaders and political activists gathered to celebrate inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Wendy Davis told a crowd at the women’s caucus: “We have never, ever had someone who has walked in our shoes, we have never had someone who understands what it means to be a woman in America, and we have never had the kind of champion that we are going to have in Hillary Clinton.” The television producer Shonda Rhimes praised Clinton as a trailblazer: “She had the audacity to refuse to quietly conform to traditional First Lady roles when she first came to Washington … [and for that] she suffered a lot of body blows in the war on women.”

The event was part pep rally, part get-out-the-vote effort, and part recognition of Clinton’s achievement as the first woman to win the presidential nomination for a major U.S. political party. Clinton can claim a feminist victory by virtue of winning the nomination. But that doesn’t mean women feel equally enthusiastic about or inspired by her success. With the presidential nomination in hand, Clinton must contend with a trust deficit and a skeptical public. Whether she can make history a second time by winning the presidency may hinge on the extent to which she can win over her critics.

The path to the general election for a woman nominee is uncharted territory. “Think about it this way: Only a hundred years ago, women couldn't even vote,” said the Rutgers University assistant political-science professor Shauna Shames. “The progress to this point in just a few decades is nothing short of stunning, and I think we forget that. But it also means there has been a tremendous backlash, some of which I think we see in the opposition to Hillary.”

For women who plan to vote for Clinton, her nomination victory stands as a groundbreaking moment. Many resist the idea that they support Clinton solely because they want a woman to win the White House. At the same time, they insist they should be able to celebrate the fact that Clinton is a woman succeeding in American politics in a way no woman has before.

“I hate those people who say, ‘Oh, you’re only voting for her because she’s a woman,’” said Brittany MacPherson, a 25-year-old Clinton convention delegate. “I’m like ‘Fuck yeah.’ I mean, it’s not the only reason I’m voting for her, but yes, that’s a good reason.”

Shana Stull, a 30-year-old Clinton delegate chimed in: “She happens to be the most qualified person who is a woman. When people shame me for that, I get really defensive. People have really come down on me, and I’m like, ‘I’m allowed to be excited about that.’”

Other women who admire Clinton stress the importance of equal representation in positions of political power. “We need more women in the House and the Senate, and in all levels of government,” said Amanda Soloway, a 23-year-old who attended the women’s caucus event. “We need to have the opportunity to have that whole part of society that’s really been pushed over to the side and into the shadows to be able to speak.”

To shatter that highest of glass ceilings, Clinton will have to overcome her vulnerabilities. As a candidate, she has an image problem. Clinton and Donald Trump are both historically unpopular. Among voters who don’t like Clinton, many believe she is untrustworthy, a Morning Consult poll found.

It’s common to hear women who admire Clinton say the criticism she faces is tinged with sexism. Yet for some of them, she is inspirational, not in spite of her reputation, but because of it. Where critics might see an irrevocably damaged reputation, admirers see perseverance in the face of adversity. “It’s been remarkable to see her career unfold,” said Dana Dabek, a 34-year-old at the women’s caucus event. “Watching her trajectory from First Lady until now, and seeing how even in the midst of misogyny, she has just kept going, kept advancing. That’s inspiring.”

At least some women say they have faced backlash for supporting Clinton. “We’ve been driven underground because people attack us,” MacPherson said. Now that Clinton has formally won the nomination that could change. “I still see Bernie holdouts,” Dabek said, “but I think people are starting to feel more comfortable making that declaration and telling people why they support her and why it’s important.”

Clinton has struggled to generate enthusiasm among younger voters. Young women in particular were resistant to voting for her during the primary season, often preferring Bernie Sanders instead.

“The generation gap has been fascinating,” Shames, the Rutgers professor, said. “Maybe feminism has succeeded so well in eliminating a lot of the early life discrimination that women might face that there’s not as much of a sense among young women that they are a minority group.” Shames added: “In a sense, that’s what the feminist movement hoped for, but in some way I think it’s removed some sense that these things do still matter.”

That dynamic has frustrated women who support the candidate. “I could remind you of what the younger feminists often forget. That in the 1990s, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a one-woman feminist revolution,” Rhimes told the crowd at the women’s caucus.

There is evidence that Democrats will coalesce around Clinton, but it remains to be seen how much excitement her campaign will be able to inspire during the general election. If the campaign can’t pull it off, it won’t be for lack of trying. Women who support Clinton are certainly trying to make the case that every woman in America should be invested in the outcome of the election.

“If we believe in the promise of America, we have to believe that it is time,” Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Fudge said at the women’s caucus. “Every other industrialized nation in the world has been led by a woman. And here we are believing that we are the best at everything, and we are still struggling. It is our time as women. It is our time.”

It goes without saying that Clinton does not represent every woman. That won’t take away the overwhelming enthusiasm her devoted supporters feel now that she has officially secured the nomination—and made history in doing so.

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