Whether you’re With Her or Feeling the Bern, there is something quite exciting about bearing witness to a historical milestone that has been centuries in the making. Here’s why.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the first woman to secure the nomination for president in the primary of a major political party. This was no coronation. This has been a tough, grueling primary, and it’s the second one she’s been through in the last ten years. Even before her first run for president in 2008, she had spent decades working on progressive causes, wearing out her shoe leather learning how to work in the grassroots ground games, and in the corridors of power. She earned this nomination by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.
She earned it, but she also stood on a lot of shoulders to get to where she is, walked though a lot of doors that others had opened, or left ajar. Since 1776, women have fought, over and over again, to be full participants in this great political experiment: the United States of America.
When the Founders wrote “All Men are Created Equal,” they really did mean to say “men.” It was not meant as a universal word meaning humans. Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman saw herself in the Declaration of Independence and sued for her freedom, and Abigail Adams famously urged John to “remember the ladies” in his work at the Constitutional Convention:
“I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Nonetheless, women were decisively excluded from full citizenship.
In 1792, only a couple of years after the U.S. Constitution was fully ratified, Mary Wollstonecraft, as part of an ongoing public discussion of the French Revolution, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in England. While it did not call for full equality of the sexes in all things, it did argue that women had inalienable, natural rights, the same as men, and that to deny them those rights was a sin. It was read and discussed throughout the English-speaking world, required reading for any who considered themselves intellectual, including in the still-dewy United States of America.
Our intellectual elite kicked the can down the road. Defining the rights of women was largely left to the states, who generally preserved the only laws that governed the position of women in society: marriage laws. Based primarily on English common-law, state laws on marriage continued to subscribe to coverture, described thusly by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, originally published in the 1760s:
“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing…”
Slaves were not allowed to marry; the reasoning was, in part, due to the belief then that it would have caused confusion about who had legal dominion over an enslaved woman: her husband or her master.
In a nation that was redefining leadership and hierarchy, however, boundaries were not etched in stone. The Washingtons, working to establish rituals and protocol around the office of the presidency, held fancy mixed-gender parties at which the wives of the president’s cabinet members sat at a table with Martha at the head in the positions their husbands took at the cabinet table. Politics were discussed quite passionately and openly.
The Adamses, of course, continued their partnership of equals as best as they could through his presidency, with Abigail keeping herself informed of daily affairs, and expressing her thoughts in mixed company.
Jefferson’s time in France before their revolution, however, had convinced him that the interference of French women in their country’s affairs at fancy salons behind closed doors had contributed heavily to France’s implosion. To avoid this, he enacted a strict wall between the domestic and public spheres. He banned nearly all formal presidential receptions, and kept groups of politically interested women from meeting in the presidential residence.
Jefferson, who was screwing his deceased wife’s enslaved half-sister, found the public sphere distasteful. He sought to protect women—White women, that is—from the contamination of public life, believing them best kept within the domestic sphere, attending to its maintenance, preserving it as a sanctum to which their weary men could retreat after a long filthy day in the outside world.
First Ladies following Jefferson’s presidency, particularly Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams, sought to create a more social and gender inclusive atmosphere in the presidential residence, and Federal political life in general, but the romanticized notion of a woman tending mainly to the domestic sphere continued.
Women outside of the elite class—poorer White women, and Black women both enslaved and free—rarely got to whisper in a powerful male ear, and had to fight for greater access to financial and political participation. Celebrated women like the Lowell Mill Girls, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Maria Stewart as well as women whose names have been lost to history wrote and spoke and fought to lay their claim to liberty and citizenship. They were part of a national conversation that consumed, and nearly destroyed, the country about what citizenship was, and who got to claim it. The 14th amendment, sweeping and profound in its scope, still specifically secured voting rights only to men, leaving women with no guarantee of citizenship.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull—who had already founded, with her sister, the first female-run brokerage house in the U.S., and published a newspaper—became the first woman to run for president. She ran largely on a platform that called for changing marriage laws to give women more power over their own lives, including the right to leave a marriage, should they choose. Though she was serious about her cause, the run for the presidency was, in all practical ways, a stunt. Women still didn’t even have the right to vote. There was no chance of a woman becoming president.
With the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, women got the vote, and the gaping gender gap in the 14th amendment was plugged. But there were still gaps to be filled. That the 14th amendment could delineate certain rights by gender meant that legal equality of the genders was not guaranteed, even with the 19th Amendment. Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, and it was first introduced to Congress that year. It failed to make it out of committee.
Even without full equal rights, women, including those who were thought to be respectable, started cutting their hair short, drinking and smoking in public, raising their hemlines, having sex a little more openly, dancing in front of strangers, eating food where everyone could see them. Crazy things like that.
The ERA continued to be introduced year after year with no success. Then, in the 1940s, as women were being asked to take over the jobs men had left behind to go to war, the two major political parties adopted passage of the ERA into their party platforms. The Republicans added it in 1940. The Democrats, party of labor, who feared potential job competition from women, didn’t put the ERA in their platform until 1944. It still went nowhere.
When the men returned from war, women were shooed back into the domestic sphere, and urged to create that sheltered retreat for their husbands that Jefferson had revered. The ERA was introduced every year, failed to pass every year, and a funny thing happened: The growing common wisdom came to be that men and women actually were equal already, so the ERA wasn’t necessary. Men and women had each attained full citizenship, they would just live out their citizenship in their respective separate spheres. Their separate, but equal spheres. Each would respect and value what the other did while performing their own expected roles.
This gender division held at all economic levels, within all racial groups. In families where the woman was unable financially to stay home with her children, the only jobs she could get in the outside world were restricted by gender: domestic worker, teacher, nurse, flight attendant, waitress. Women continued to have little financial control over their lives, especially if they were married.
In 1960, this thinking hit a bit of a peak. A couple that looked like they could have starred in a TV sitcom became President and First Lady. Jackie Kennedy—shy, beautiful, a bit of a homebody—resisted public life, only relenting in her reticence to give her legendary television tour of the White House, revealing publically the nation’s domestic sphere.
Jackie’s husband, meanwhile, decreased the total number of women in cabinet from what his predecessors had appointed. Furious, several female reporters, along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, pressured President Kennedy to increase the number of women in his administration. He relented. Roosevelt also insisted he put together a commission on the status of women. Being a good pro-labor Democrat, she hoped this commission she wanted would prove that the ERA was unnecessary, that women had achieved full equality of citizenship. It began its work in 1961, with Roosevelt as its chair.
In 1963, the Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and the Commission on the Status of Women released its report. Its illustrious chair had died just a few months before, and its results were not what she had hoped. Two years of research had found widespread discrimination against women. Though the Commission stopped short of officially calling for the ERA to be added to the Constitution, it acknowledged that women were not legally equal, and recommended that the Supreme Court rule to extend the 14th Amendment to include gender.
Opponents of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in an effort to get the bill defeated, included an amendment written by women’s rights advocates guaranteeing equal opportunity regardless of sex. The bill passed anyway, giving women a new legal tool to fight discrimination.
Near the very end of that same year, Kisses For My President was released. In the lighthearted comedy, female voters band together to elect a woman to the presidency. Her husband, played by Fred McMurray, has to assume the duties of First Lady. Hilarity ensues.
The ’70s were a revolutionary time for feminism. Laws and minds were changed. Still, Shirley Chisholm—representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district, the first African-American woman to ever win a Congressional seat—ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972, and she wasn’t taken seriously as a contender or supported significantly by white feminists. Which is criminal, especially when you consider some of the male candidates who are to this day taken seriously. A woman running for president until recently was seen as a political stunt.
The Equal Rights Amendment came this close to getting into the Constitution, until it didn’t. Its defeat marked the rise of the Moral Majority, and the beginning of a severe backlash to Feminist gains.
The ’80s brought us a First Lady known for gazing at her husband in awed adoration. Martha Stewart— whom we did not yet realize was a badass whose skills would eventually lead her to crafting the best damn shivs West Virginia had ever seen—sold ubiquitous books on perfecting your personal domestic sphere. The ’80s ended with a First Lady who was a tough broad known to keep her opinions to herself.
In 1992, Hillary Rodham’s husband ran for president.
She was Hillary Rodham Clinton now, after an unsuccessful attempt to keep her maiden name as First Lady of Arkansas. She’d spent decades doing on-the-ground legal work for progressive causes, primarily those involving women and children. Asked on camera about working outside the home, she replied: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies!”
If this was a movie preview, now is when you would hear the record scratch.
Oh, the hell that broke loose. Hillary Rodham Clinton was already suspected of being a radical Communist shrew, and now she was insulting women who baked cookies. There was damage control, she participated in a cookie bake-off, and—spoiler alert!—her husband eventually won the presidency. Her cookie recipe was even posted on the White House website. In the end, though, there were people who never forgave her, and some of them would devote themselves to hounding her mercilessly.
It didn’t help that her husband wanted Hillary to have an official role in the political life of the Oval Office, as befitted her experience. He half-joked that they would be co-presidents, and put her in charge of his signature policy issue: health-care reform. Many First Ladies had been deeply involved in White House goings on—one even secretly ran the U.S. government for several weeks while her husband recovered from a stroke—but there was something that unsettled people about this being so open. John F. Kennedy had made his brother Attorney General, but First Ladies were supposed to at least pretend to focus primarily on china patterns.
After hours upon hours, years upon years, of investigation—costing millions of taxpayer dollars—the Clinton hunters finally turned up something untoward: the president had engaged in a brief affair. Hillary was publicly humiliated. The nation watched her suffer.
Suddenly, the public opinion changed: Hillary’s intelligence, her experience, her hard work never endeared her to the American public. But humiliation did.
You know her story from there. She ran for a New York Senate seat and won. She ran for president in 2008—read Rebecca Traister’s book Big Girls Don’t Cry for more details—and lost. She served as secretary of State for four years, and reorganized U.S. foreign policy so it focused on women’s lives and needs, too.
Thomas Jefferson served as the first secretary of State, and for this country’s first few decades, holding the position was considered the last step in one’s preparation to be president. Of course the Secretary of State often faces terrible choices—scenarios in which “no one dies” isn’t an option. Precisely the kind of public sphere filthiness from which Jefferson sought to shield women. He knew that if women entered the public sphere, they couldn’t opt to only engage with the nice stuff.
Women engage in war planning and violent engagements. They now serve (openly) as soldiers. They are police officers, and doctors, and heads of state. They make the hard choices that only men used to get the opportunity to make. We lose the option to be innocent and unsullied if we choose to engage in the world. That is the trade-off.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president, it won’t be a secret. It won’t be because an elected president died. She’ll become president because she ran to become president, and won. She’ll walk into the Oval Office through the front door. Not even Thomas Jefferson will be able to stop her.
There’s a classic song from the height of the Second Wave feminist days: “I Am Woman.” It is often mocked, but it is truly moving—I highly recommend the bizarre but oddly stirring Ding-a-Ling Sisters version—and expresses something very real:
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul.
That’s Hillary, right? If I may be maudlin for a moment, it’s American women, in numbers too big to ignore, with 240 years of work behind us.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created equal. We are securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. We are writing ourselves into the sequel.
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