"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time."— Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her speech ending her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is closer to the White House than ever. The March 15 primary ballots have been counted, and Secretary Clinton is poised to make history as the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination. There’s something immensely validating about witnessing a woman come so close to the most powerful seat in the world—one that has been historically out of reach for her gender. Part of me wants to run flailing back to kindergarten and list “President of the United States” on the part of my poster where I told my mom to write “Veterinarian.” Another part of me is terrified.
Symbolically, “President Hillary Rodham Clinton” has the sweet ring of victory. She’s not the perfect candidate for every voter. She has her flaws, certainly: a vote for the Iraq War, a decade of foot-dragging on marriage equality, and support for a racist crime bill does not make for an ideal record. But Clinton is also a pro-choice woman, a feminist, and a longtime advocate for universal health care. Most importantly, her swearing-in would provide visible proof to little girls across the country that they, too, can lead. That nothing is off limits. (It’d also be a great example for little boys, who need to see women in positions of power in order to not grow up terribly.) But I can’t help but look beyond symbolism, and that’s when my excitement begins to metastasize into fear. What will a win for Hillary Clinton mean for women who don’t live in the White House? When will the backlash arrive?
When then-Senator Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States, the backlash was swift and immediate. In the 2010 midterm elections, 44 of the newly-elected Republicans (including senators and 2016 presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) were swept into office by a movement that called itself the Tea Party. The movement’s stated goals were ideological: to adhere more strictly to conservative interpretations of the Constitution and to radically reduce the size of government. (Many candidates who fell under this banner ousted more traditional Republican incumbents in the party’s primaries.) But as former Republican strategist David Frum argues in a recent cover story for the Atlantic, the voters who swept those candidates into office cared less about the ideological underpinnings of limited government than they did about the shrinking economy and the scarecrows snatching away jobs. In other words, Tea Party voters were populists—angry populists, overwhelmingly white and feeling left behind.
Historically, every major breakthrough for American women has been followed by reprisal.
On the ground, racist backlash reached a fever pitch. After Obama won a second term in 2012, increased anger and violence directed at black people necessitated the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014, a movement that fights back against racially motivated police violence and a variety of other legislative and judicial issues. As Jamelle Bouie writes for Salon, “For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism…Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life…. More than simply ‘change,’ Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.”
Bouie points to this racialized backlash to explain Trump’s probable nomination on the Republican side. It's important to note also that the backlash against President Obama has much to do with his identity as a black man and very little to do with his moderate governing strategies—the Affordable Care Act, the initiative of his administration most often attacked by Republicans, hinges on a policy initiative outlined by a conservative think tank in the early 1990s. In 2012, Ezra Klein, for the Washington Post, called him “the most polarizing moderate ever.” Hillary Clinton, who many believe would govern even more moderately than Obama, nevertheless has much higher unfavorable ratings than he did when he took office. Clinton also stands to inherit a country already teeming with anger and fear.
Historically, every major breakthrough for American women has been followed by reprisal. As Susan Faludi writes in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “Certainly hostility to female independence has always been with us. But if fear and loathing of feminism is a sort of perpetual viral condition in our culture, it is not always in an acute stage; its symptoms subside and resurface periodically. And it is these episodes of resurgence…that can be accurately termed ‘backlashes’ to women’s advancement. If we trace these occurrences in American history, we find such flare-ups are hardly random; they have always been triggered by the perception—accurate or not—that women are making great strides.”
Lori Cox Han, author of Women and U.S. Politics: The Spectrum of Political Leadership notes that “the executive branch is perhaps the most masculine of the three branches of government, due mostly to its hierarchical structure, unity of command, and the ability for a president to act decisively when the need arises. The presidency also ‘operates on the great man medal of leadership,’ leaving women defined as the ‘other’ in the executive branch.” It’s possible that the first female president could spark the greatest backlash we’ve yet seen.
The problem with backlash is that it doesn’t occur in response to women achieving equality, but rather by the increased possibility that they might, one day, attain it. This means that backlashes occur, according to Dr. Jean Miller, “when advances have been small, before changes are sufficient to help many people.” It’s not difficult to realize that a President Hillary Rodham Clinton could, by no fault of her own, isolate and leave behind a majority of women to suffer violence and harassment in the wake of the sexist reactions to her presidency.
The media has great power to shape public opinion about female candidates for office, as well as women in general. In her book Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, Susan J. Carroll warns that “women forging new political ground often struggle to receive media coverage and legitimacy in the eyes of the media and, subsequently, the public.” As Han notes, “Studies to date suggest that the news media rarely portray women as authoritative and legitimate leaders within the political system.” In other words, where goes the media, goes public opinion.
Jeanette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to Congress, was said to look more like “a mature bride rather than a strong-minded female” on the day of her swearing in, and was called a “crying schoolgirl” by the Helena Independent when she voted against the war in 1917. Almost 100 years later, in 2007, Nancy Pelosi took over as the first female Speaker of the House, and was subsequently referred to as “Squeaker of the House,” “the Wicked Witch of the West,” and a “shrew.” Sandra Day O’Connor faced so much sexism she once penned a scalding letter to the editor after the New York Times made reference to the “nine men of the Supreme Court” a full two years after she joined the bench in 1981.
Media outlets declared 1992 the “Year of the Woman” after four women—Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer—were elected to the Senate. But the coverage misrepresented Congress: The Senate was still 94 percent male, and the House almost 90 percent. Then there was the tenor of the coverage itself: A Newsday headline quipped, “Will Women Pols Clean House?” The New York Times referred to Senator Boxer as a “feisty little woman” and a “former Marin County housewife,” although she had served in the House for the past decade. USA Today called being a male candidate a “handicap.”
The press also failed to distinguish Carol Moseley Braun—the first and only black woman to ever serve in the Senate—from the other female candidates when claiming women had an “advantage,” though she ran a grassroots primary campaign without backing from the Democratic party. To date, only two women of color have ever served as Senators. The second, and first female Asian-American Senator, Mazie Hirono, was elected in 2012 (D-Hawaii). Two women of color made history in 2010 when they were elected as Governor of their states: Nikki Haley (R-South Carolina, first female Governor of South Carolina and first Indian-American female elected governor) and Susana Martinez (R-New Mexico, first female Governor of New Mexico and first Hispanic female elected governor).
The uproar over the first non-white male to win that seat has had eight years to grow and define itself.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president, thus beginning decades of sexist attacks on Hillary. As First Lady, she was often called “Lady Macbeth in a headband.” When President Obama appointed her to Secretary of State in 2008, Rush Limbaugh began referring to Clinton as “Sex-retary of State,” as well as his favorite nickname, “the most cheated-on woman in the world.”
Next year, Clinton may very well become the first female president. The uproar over the first non-white male to win that seat has had eight years to grow and define itself. Where the angriest factions of white America associate black Americans with crime and paint them as “unfit” beneficiaries of entitlement programs, women are seen as politically inextricable from disputes over the legality of and access to abortion. Backlash to the first female president could result in more anti-women legislation, like TRAP laws and defunding clinics that list abortion among their provided services. There could be a greater focus on the ever-present pressure to overturn Roe v. Wade and ban abortion throughout the country. (This can already be seen in the hysteria over which president has the right to nominate a successor to Justice Scalia.) There could be an increase in acts of violence, such as last November’s Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.
Secretary Clinton opens her book Hard Choices with an anecdote about her first post-defeat meeting with then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama, during which he asked her to serve as Secretary of State. She writes, “As to the sexism that surfaced during the campaign, I knew that it arose from cultural and psychological attitudes about women’s roles in society, but that didn’t make it any easier for me and my supporters.”
The sexist vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton is just as toxic this year as it was in 2008. Male pundits telling the former Secretary of State to “smile” and “stop yelling,” for example, sparked outrage after Clinton’s victory speech in West Palm Beach, Fla. last week. Her likely opponent—a man who is unabashedly unafraid to aim sexist hate-speech at any woman in his path—has supporters who are literally assaulting black people who try to protest his rallies.
If Obama’s presidency has taught us anything about identity politics, it’s that white male anxiety has very little restraint or self-awareness. And more terrifying: that increasingly hostile, violent energy might be denied a “positive” outlet (supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy) and therefore channeled into a “negative” outlet (putting women back in “our place”). Polls show that Americans believe race relations are worse today than when Obama took office. Donald Trump has threatened, “I think you’d have riots” if he is denied the Republican nomination at convention. What might happen if “backlash voters” take a second blow to their historical dominance? How can we expect them to react if Donald Trump loses to a woman? Where will that feverish energy go?