What Hillary Did for Women

Hillary Clinton's non-concession speech last night, in which she reiterated all her old arguments about why she'd be a stronger nominee than Barack Obama, was discouraging for those hoping the candidate would gracefully transition into Party Unity mode. Still, you can't help but feel for a woman who came so very close to a historic, improbable dream, only to see it slip through her fingers. Now that the endless primary is over, American women -- especially those engaged with politics -- owe Hillary Clinton a "thank you," no matter which candidate or even political party they support. Clinton has profoundly altered and enhanced, probably forever, the role of women in American political life.

In recent weeks, much has been written about what Clinton's failed candidacy says about the state of women in America. To what extent are professional women still victimized by sexist double standards? (To a great extent.) How deep is Clinton's own commitment to feminist ideals? (She could have made a "gender" speech the way Obama made a "race" speech, but she didn't.) And most counterproductively, what's worse, racism or sexism? (Both, of course, remain socially pervasive, but there is some limited evidence that when it comes to electing political leaders, voters are more comfortable with a male politician of any race than with a woman.)

Meanwhile, we have largely looked past the positive influence Clinton's candidacy has already had on the role of women in politics. Over the course of this historic, thrilling, aggressive primary election, we've seen more female pundits than ever before writing and speaking about presidential politics. We've experienced unprecedented interest from male politicos in women's participation in the electoral process. And demands for women's leadership have been given their fairest hearing to date in the United States, with Democrats nationwide expecting Obama to give close consideration to female vice-presidential prospects -- not only because there are a few wildly successful and talented women who would be great at the job, but also as a gesture of good will toward the feminist energy that animated so many Clinton supporters.

That energy was on display in Washington, D.C., this past Saturday as die-hard pro-Hillary activists demonstrated outside of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, which was deciding the fate of the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida. Characterized as a homogenous, angry mob of washed up, white, middle-aged women, the "Count Every Vote" rally was actually quite diverse. The majority of the attendees were female, but men were there too -- and the gathering included people of many (and multiple) identities. Florida sent an especially large contingent of black Clinton supporters, almost half of whom were male. The Nevada group was primarily young and Latino. Members of the gay community were out in force. Everyone listened respectfully as one woman performed a folk song about the wage gap between women and men.

Granted, among those I spoke to, older white women were the most likely to say they would consider voting for John McCain if Obama became the nominee. As Cindy Malzan, a 51-year-old from Buffalo, N.Y., told me, "nothing" could convince her to cast a ballot for Obama, whom she considers naïve. "And most everyone I know feels that way."

But Malzan's opinion wasn't representative of the many rally-goers who said they wouldn't let their loyalty to Clinton affect their loyalty to the Democratic Party. That's how most feminist Clinton supporters feel; more disappointed than angry, and watchful for indications from Obama that he takes their priorities -- which include female leadership -- seriously.

The Obama campaign and the media appreciate the delicacy of the situation. That's why, in addition to Clinton herself, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas are among the top three most frequently-mentioned vice-presidential prospects, trailing only Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia. Sebelius and Napolitano both led their states' Democratic parties from the wilderness to the mainstream through careful outreach to moderates. Napolitano's record on immigration and education is impressive, especially considering Arizona's conservative political climate, while Sebelius has taken a strong stance on the environment, halting the construction of new coal plants. These are domestic issues that will resonate deeply in the general election.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz claimed that if Obama chooses one of these accomplished women, it would immediately beg the question, "Will the running mate be seen as a plausible president?" That's condescending. In actuality, the tenures of Sebelius and Napolitano provide instructive models for how the next Democratic president could neutralize opposition and govern effectively. Yet it is inconceivable that the lady governors would be receiving anything close to a fair hearing had Clinton not first demonstrated how hungry a large segment of the Democratic base is to see a woman president. Neither Napolitano nor Sebelius endorsed Clinton, but both must feel some debt toward her path-breaking campaign, which raised their own national profiles.

The Netroots movement, too, has been debating women and feminism. A "walk out" by pro-Clinton writers at DailyKos called attention to the misogynistic venom roiling the comment sections of many popular liberal blogs. Meanwhile, some male Netroots writers who have traditionally been derisive of "identity politics" have begun to reconsider whether fighting progressives really need to be as dripping with hunky, gun-toting masculinity as longtime favorites Webb and Rep. Heath Schuler. In an uncharacteristic blog post last Wednesday, Matt Stoller of OpenLeft wrote, "Needed: A kickass woman politician archetype." Stoller wouldn't admit that Clinton has made real strides in forging such a persona -- he has long disparaged her slow transition from Iraq hawk to anti-war candidate -- but he did lament that the United States ranks 84th in the world for elected women politicians. "Tough, kick-ass, no-nonsense women are a new and fresh way to say 'progressive,'" he blogged, naming Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland and Washington state congressional candidate Darcy Bruner as examples.

One reason men are taking greater notice of the lack of women office-holders (women hold only eight gubernatorial seats and make up just 17 percent of Congress) is because Clinton's candidacy has been the perfect news peg for political scientists who've long been examining these issues. A Brookings Institution report by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox on the paucity of women running for office made it into the pages of The Washington Post. And during these waning days of the Clinton campaign, the Rutgers University Center on American Women and Politics, which has been quietly providing invaluable research since 1995, suddenly finds itself a highly popular source for mainstream media quotes.

Female writers have also benefited from this unprecedented interest around a woman politician and her appeal to women voters. In September 2006, I wrote a controversial essay arguing that the lack of visible women on the national political stage was a major reason why the ranks of political punditry are dominated by men. "Journalism is an observational profession, and it makes sense that many women writers feel detached from a political world that not only showcases very few women, but also relegates 'women's issues' to second-class status," I wrote, concluding, "This is why presidential politics matters. ... If a woman (or two) runs for president, and particularly if a progressive one wins, women and 'women's issues' would come to the fore of the national political discussion. This could change the landscape of political journalism, forcing writers (and their readers) to perceive not only women in a different context, but also politics in different ways -- involving a new set of sociological and political realities that female writers are uniquely qualified to engage."

Hillary Clinton didn't win. But this year, every major newspaper and magazine has tapped into female and feminist analysts more frequently than ever before, and Clinton is clearly the motivating factor. Newsweek ran a cover package featuring a dozen women writers on Hillary. In The New York Times, women who usually write cultural commentary, such as Peggy Orenstein, found themselves wading into political waters, and on March 12, the op-ed page featured its first ever all-female authored slate of columns. The Washington Post hosted a lively debate between Linda Hirshman and TAP Online contributor Adele Stan on whether it was reasonable for committed feminists to support Obama over Clinton. At other publications, sparkling women writers such as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Rebecca Traister, Debra Dickerson, and Michelle Goldberg jumped into the fray.

Yes, as Clinton herself has said again and again, her oh-so-close campaign has provided girls across the globe with a role model of a tough woman competing relentlessly to reach the very heights of power. But in the short term, the feminist effects of Clinton's run can be observed most clearly among us grown-ups. Clinton has single-handedly changed the contours of our public debate about gender and politics, and even the roster of that debate's contributors. That's good for women, good for democracy, and good for progressivism. So Hillary Clinton, thank you.

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