After reading a dozen post-mortems on Senator Clinton’s historic presidential candidacy, which granted, aint over until the lady in the pantsuit says so, the one I would recommend to future generations trying to understand the impact of Clinton’s run is Katha Pollit’s “Iron My Skirt” in The Nation. One of the venerable Nation‘s strongest voices for both feminism and peace, Pollitt offers one of the more insightful graphs on Clinton’s run yet published:
Some think Clinton’s loss, and the psychodrama surrounding it, will set women back. I think they’re wrong. Love her or loathe her, the big story here is Americans saw a woman who was a serious, popular, major-party candidate. Clinton showed herself to be tough, tireless, supersmart and definitely ready to lead on that famous Day One. She raised a ton of money and won 17.5 million votes from men and women. She was exciting, too: she and Obama galvanized voters for six long months–in some early contests, each of them racked up more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. Once the bitterness of the present moment has faded, that’s what people will remember. Because she normalized the concept of a woman running for President, she made it easier for women to run for every office, including the White House. That is one reason women and men of every party and candidate preference, and every ethnicity too, owe Hillary Clinton a standing ovation, even if they can’t stand her.
Hillary-haters — and there are many — probably won’t get this. But Clinton’s campaign may indeed have a profound and enduring legacy, equal in the long run to Obama’s.
Pollitt rolls out a very disturbing litany of media sexism directed against Clinton, and it was more widespread and appalling than I had realized. (Pollitt names the women perps, as well as the men). Yet Pollitt doesn’t attribute Clinton’s loss to vicious sexism. Instead she cites Clinton’s Iraq policies, strategic blunders and Obama’s remarkable political skills as pivotal factors. Pollitt nonetheless concludes with the warning that future women candidates for high office “better have the hide of a rhinoceros.”
To put Clinton’s candidacy into context, it may help to consider a recent Brookings study “Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?” conducted by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. The study, based on surveys conducted in 2001 and 2008, concluded that the gender gap in political office-holders in the U.S. has more to do with with women’s lower levels of political ambition than discrimination-related factors. Reading between the lines, however, it’s hard to dismiss pervasive societal sexism as a potent force behind what the authors call “the gender gap in political ambition.”
The authors acknowlege that HRC’s candidacy, along with the examples of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other women office-holders may yet shatter the political glass ceiling. Pelosi had a tough time of it, but what she experienced was a cakewalk, compared to what Clinton has endured. My hunch is not many male politicians could have run that guantlet of personalized attacks and emerged standing, dignity intact. And that example alone may empower women candidates for decades to come.