Dear Hillary: A Letter from an Obama Feminist

Dear Hillary,

I didn’t vote for you in the primaries, but I want you to know how deeply appreciative I am of your campaign, your presence, and your perseverance.

You have changed the landscape of politics and gender so dramatically in the last year that it is almost hard for me to remember what it was like before your campaign. I strain to remember the moment, just a few semesters ago, when one of my students said, “Miss, I gotta tell you, I just can’t imagine a woman president.” It was the days of Geena Davis’ failed television show depicting just that, the days when your candidacy was still a pipe dream, the days when female and president were still estranged words in the American psyche.

So much has changed. While I don’t agree with all of the choices you and your staff have made along the way, there isn't a pundit or political scientist who could argue that you haven't run a competitive campaign, or been taken seriously by the American public, for that matter. My former student will never again confess that he can't “imagine a woman president” because you have provided a flesh-and-blood example that the possibility exists; his anemic imagination will no longer be any match for the 54 hard-fought primary contests you engaged in—winning the most primary votes of any candidate in history! Contrary to what pundits may say in the wake of your campaign, America has proven itself ready for a woman president, plain and simple.

You've given us the opportunity to heed the call of our higher selves, our higher America. This is a nation where a woman is not deemed unfit to hold the highest office in the land simply because she is female, or because she values her role as a mother, or because she tears up when talking about this country's future. This is a nation where a mother and daughter can hit the campaign trail in tandem, talk about environmental justice, economic policy, and terrorism despite none of these being deemed “women's issues” in the antiquated style sections of most major newspapers.

You've also, sadly, given us the opportunity to highlight the ways in which too many of those in power are still heeding the call of their lower selves, our lower America. This is a nation where Chris Matthews' career is boosted, not spoiled, by his continuously sexist remarks about everything Hillary. This is a nation where Tucker Carlson sits smugly behind a desk and says, “When she comes on television I involuntarily cross my legs,” suggesting that while a man can be tough, ambitious, focused, a woman is still just a ball breaker in pundits' eyes. This is a nation where the Republican candidate for president chuckles when asked how he plans on “beating the bitch.” Have you seen the Women's Media Center's recent video, “Sexism Sells”? Next time someone claims your campaign wasn’t affected by sexist mainstream media, send them to watch it so we can all get on with more interesting questions. (Speaking of which, I have a fantasy that you might follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, becoming an independent renegade for global education.)

I thank you for weathering this storm of anxious masculinity and outright sabotage, but even more, for creating a moment where the kind of subtle sexism that women experience everyday—in boardrooms and courtrooms, in college classrooms and dining halls, on city streets and in small town bars —was brought to undeniable light. Your campaign was a perfect flashpoint to finally get us talking about the tangled knot of leadership and gender, our society's obsession with looks and youth, the double-bind that so many women in positions of power are forced to face—either you're a bitch or a doormat, no in-between. You made sexism newsworthy in a way it hasn't been since Anita Hill. No doubt young minds have been shaped and older minds have been changed by watching you over the last year.

Feminism has been strengthened by this moment; your candidacy and the issues it raised have forced us to reckon with long-standing intergenerational tensions and rearticulate our definitions of feminism and our expectations of one another. I was pushed by other feminists, rightly, to really examine my choice to vote for Barack Obama. I tried to explain that my feminism is powerfully intersectional, that I am moved by his biography, but even more, by his commitment to diplomacy, his inspirational leadership, and his vision for a more equal America. I know I’ve disappointed some of my feminist predecessors and even my peers, but I stand by this choice. I have grown as a citizen and a political writer by all the challenges that your candidacy has presented, especially with regards to my feminist consciousness. And I have always tried to be clear that I support you though I didn't choose to pull the lever for you.

I worry that watching how savage the media can be, seeing the ways in which your appearance, your voice, your marriage were so consistently analyzed, will discourage some women from following in your footsteps. It is as if, before your run, we had an inkling that being a serious female contender for the presidency would be tough, and now we know it is practically repellant. I wouldn't do it. As political as I am, as outraged at how this country has been led in the last decade, I would never be able to deal with all the scrutiny and pressure that you've been under.

My hope is that we are facing a tipping point in electoral politics. Right now, you are an anomaly. Much like the women who slipped into boardrooms in the early 1980s with shoulder pads and a desire to blend in, you have pioneered the first serious run for the presidency by a woman with, to put it bluntly, balls. As my friend Ellen Bravo puts it, you've played with “the big boys,” used their language, fit into their paradigm of retaliatory violence and attack ad campaigning. I was disappointed, in particular, by your campaign’s race-baiting tactics. When Obama made his historic speech on race, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why couldn’t Hillary address these issues with the same honesty? Why can’t she channel the wide-eyed 21-year-old that she once was, the one who ended her Wellesley graduation speech with the words, ‘You and I must be free/Not to save the world in a glorious crusade/Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain/But to practice with all the skill of our being/The art of making possible.’”

Sometimes I felt as if you’d forgotten about the “art of making possible,” and instead, stomped a path toward power. Next time, I hope an inspiring woman candidate can follow in your footsteps with a bit more authenticity -- and face a whole lot less sexism. Just as women in the business world today are transforming the very structure within which they work—advocating for better work/life policies and collaborative, creative approaches—I see your successors as women who might have the courage, vision, and cultural permission to question war as a whole, to transform government traditions that are classist, racist, and sexist, and to transcend party politics.

As Barack Obama said in his speech last Tuesday evening: “Our party and our country are better off because of Hillary Clinton.” I couldn't agree more. I thank you for your wide-ranging influence. I hope it will inspire Obama to appoint strong women in his administration. (And a ticket starring the two of you together would be an amazing gift to America.)

You have not lost. If anything, you have fulfilled your lifelong dream of legitimizing women's rightful place in positions of public power, and in so doing, made this country a more enlightened home for all of us. Thank you so very much.

Courtney E. Martin