Feminists have been lamenting the collective “yawn” that seems to have followed Hillary Clinton’s effective clinching of the Democratic nomination this week. Right or wrong, in contrast to the tears and excitement over President Obama’s nomination in 2008, it’s true there is a different feeling in the air.
Objectively it is a pretty big deal to see the first woman earn the nomination of a major political party, and take a big step toward becoming the first woman U.S. president. It’s easy for a woman like myself – who has had the luxury to receive higher degrees, pursue a career path of my choosing, make financial plans, and participate in a mutually respectful marriage – to forget that American women did not always enjoy such freedoms (and certainly plenty of women around the globe still don’t).
So why isn’t there more enthusiasm?
It could be a function of the different histories of black Americans and women. While the quest for women’s rights was a social movement that grew up alongside the abolitionist movement, most historians are hard-pressed to argue that their histories are really equivalents. While women faced tremendous challenges and it took bravery and dedication to win voting rights and later access to education and workplace opportunities, it doesn’t compare to the sufferings of black Americans, who only experienced serious institutional changes following a vicious, bloody Civil War.
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But I’m not sure that explains the half-hearted enthusiasm.
Clinton’s outdated message may be a root cause of this apathy. It’s always a wonderful thing to have role models for women, but Clinton’s “Free to Be You and Me” narrative feels a bit out of touch. Her now famous tweet – “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want – even president. Tonight is for you.” – brings a smile to your face, but it’s stuck in the 1970s. It seems detached from the fact that we’re living at a time when most young women already think they can – and are – doing anything they want.
Some will certainly argue that the lack of enthusiasm is an outcome of sexism – perhaps the country really isn’t ready for a woman president, after all. This seems unlikely, however, considering that back in 2007 a strong majority of Americans (55 percent) already said they were ready for a female president. And more recent research offers an even more encouraging picture of the American public (and the media’s) outlook of women serving in public office, in which we’re increasingly judging candidates by their substance, not their gender.
Personally, I’d hope the ambivalence over Clinton is a result of her policy agenda. I certainly disagree vehemently with her legislative prescriptions for health care, paid leave, and energy for instance; but the Pew Research Center found 64 percent of Democrats (and leaners) think she’d make a great president, which suggests that her policies must resonate with them.
So the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more it becomes clear that we can’t separate out this historic moment from the candidate herself. The reason for the collective yawn is Hillary Clinton. The fact is, she’s simply not President Obama – like him or not, Mr. Obama exuded a presence, a personality, and a charisma that resonated literally around the globe. He didn’t have to talk about being a historic figure because it went without saying. And it’s no surprise that he’s now planning to return to the campaign trail – an unconventional role for a sitting president – to help campaign for Clinton. He stirs up excitement.
Clinton lacks inspiration, but even more significant is the fact that 59 percent of voters according to Quinnipiac don’t believe she’s honest or trustworthy. Her entire public career is characterized by a series of ups and downs (see this Pew Research Center chart for a visual). She is the definition of a “polarizing figure.” And of course in recent years she has become synonymous with the corruption of Washington – most notably through the Benghazi tragedy, the Clinton Foundation activities, and email scandal that may have put our national security risk.
I agree it’s exciting to see women succeed, and I’m thrilled my children live at a time when freedom and opportunity for women is no longer the exception to the rule. Thankfully my daughters and my son have lots of female role models to look up to, from family members to neighbors, friends, and teachers. They are surrounded by truly wonderful women who have carved out interesting careers and family arrangements, who regularly inspire and encourage them to succeed.
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That’s why it’s hard to be enthusiastic about a candidate that is synonymous with corruption and business-as-usual in a town that desperately needs meaningful change. Hillary Clinton may shatter a glass ceiling if she enters the White House; but most Americans are looking for leaders – in our family, community, or in government – who will inspire us.
Love her or hate her, that’s the missing piece for Hillary Clinton.