A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I had also cried when I voted for her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. I didn’t realize they were that close to the surface, but when I actually saw a highly-qualified female’s name under the heading of President of the United States, the tears started and didn’t stop until I got home that dark winter night.
I cried for all the oppression I’ve experienced as a woman – blatant and subtle. I cried because my mother was born when women couldn’t vote in this country and died before she had the chance to vote for a female presidential candidate on a major party ticket. I cried for Hillary, that she had experienced so much overt misogyny ever since she hit the public scene (and probably before that).
No doubt, there was a man of color (or hundreds) in the Deep South crying for similar reasons after pulling the lever for Barack Obama. But that night was about my personal journey as someone who came of age during the defeated Equal Rights Amendment.
During her first campaign, I watched Hillary struggle with her identity as a candidate: Was she a female candidate or just a candidate? I grew annoyed with her seeming identity crisis because, pantsuits aside, it was her gender that significantly distinguished her from the rest of the field in both parties. Yet, when she became misty-eyed after a defeat in New Hampshire, she endured brutal ridicule. I then understood her dilemma: Those who had faulted her for being too strong suddenly reversed their criticism to say she wasn’t strong enough. As a result, Hillary seemed to adopt more typically-masculine behaviors. And Obama let his inner female shine through. Her voice became more strident while his soft-spokenness paved the way for him to be viewed as a new kind of leader who would perfect diplomacy. She belted down boilermakers on the campaign trail while he sipped wine. She went on the offensive while he (literally) preached forgiveness. They each tried to become The Other, which led to an interesting phenomenon: The Other trying to become The other Other.
The media was merciless, from the indispensable Hillary nutcracker to pundit comments that she reminded them of a nagging wife. As her delegate tally grew more hopeless, I became angry with Hillary for blowing “our” chances. Until I realized that she was trailblazing under a microscope, doing what no woman had ever before done. Consequently, she was walking right into all the landmines. Getting blown up right before our eyes and ears, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle.
It’s what all first-timers do. And those who are in enemy territory.
In 2008, Hillary clearly chose not to play The Gender Card…until her concession speech. She didn’t need to – she had the cred. Yet it was a card she had earned the right to play. With much grace, she talked about the historical significance of her run. And those of us who have felt the impact of gender discrimination in our very DNA cried a silent cry. The video clip that was broadcast at the convention about Hillary’s life touted the fact that her mother had brought her up to believe she could do or be anything (hence, the gender-neutral name).
Anything but run for president, it seemed.
I saw tears in the eyes of African-American delegates the night Barack Obama was nominated, and I understood the validation it represented to them. Yet, when all was said and done, there were once again two men running for president. I recounted the words of the 19th century suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “The prejudice against sex is more deeply rooted and more unreasonably maintained than that against color.” Even though they had recently been freed from slavery, black men gained the right to vote 50 years before women. Women who had also been considered property.
And a black man would be elected President of the United States before a woman.
Geraldine Ferraro, reminiscing about her 1984 vice-presidential nomination, said she had been startled to see so many girls and women crying on the convention floor when she gave her acceptance speech. She had told her daughters ahead of time, “Whatever you do, don’t cry because we can’t. Women can’t cry over these things… We cannot be looked at as being soft, or different, because I’m a woman.”
They cried anyway. So did female reporters covering the historic event.
In Donna Zaccaro’s 2013 documentary film about her mother, Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way, the daughters confessed that they didn’t realize it would be such a big deal for their mother to be nominated because they’d been raised to believe their gender was not a liability.
Twenty-four years would pass before another woman was nominated at a national convention. A woman who would eschew the intent of the feminist movement.
Sarah Palin and now Carly Fiorina are to be credited for helping me realize that my support of Hillary isn’t about blind allegiance to my gender. It’s about supporting a woman who I believe can competently perform the duties of the presidency, breaking through the veil of exclusion that has too-long beset my gender. I had been proud to claim Hillary as my two-term Senator from New York – the first female Senator in the history of this state. She had clout, passion, intelligence, and political savvy, serving on five Senate committees and nine subcommittees. Despite our state’s vast cultural divide between urban/rural and upstate/downstate communities, her approval rating reached 74%, including half of registered Republicans.
Since her first failed presidential bid, I’ve been hoping Hillary would have another opportunity. Her history demonstrates a passion for public service. Even as First Lady, she sought to influence public policy and, for that, a bull’s eye was emblazoned on her back. Her health care reform proposal was trounced in 1993, yet many analysts now say her plan was at least as good as what we ended up with more than 20 years later. She played a leading role in advocating for the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for those whose parents can’t cover them. Reminding us that “it takes a village,” she’s been a consistent advocate for high-quality education, child care, family planning, civil rights, veterans’ benefits, marriage equality, gender equity, and income equality.
Her approval rating was close to 70% upon leaving her role as Secretary of State, having visited 112 countries, helping to repair the badly-damaged reputation of our country following the Bush-Cheney debacle. Even a two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee into the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya found no wrong-doing, concluding that she and her department acted properly. Her testimony before them clearly showed that she was not one to be bullied.
I believe this could be my last opportunity to witness a highly-qualified woman taking the Oath of Office. I don’t want to end up like the founding suffragists who died before they won the right to vote, after spending more than 75 years on the cause.
When I say this out loud, friends remind me of Elizabeth Warren’s rising-star. I highly respect this Senator from my neighboring state and supported her Congressional bid. She’s an intelligent, articulate, and progressive legislator. But not only has she emphatically said she’s not running (she turned down a one-million dollar pledge from Bill Maher on the spot), I fear that her academic persona and philosophical bent would not serve her (or us) well as president. That once-dignified and revered role has become down-and-dirty, riddled with obstructionism and malice from ideologues, their stated purpose being to thwart our similarly intelligent, articulate, and progressive President at every turn. Well-reasoned arguments don’t work with these bullies, causing me to question if Senator Warren is tough and savvy enough.
She may get there, and I hope she does. But then something else will be lost along the way.
Hillary is not squeaky-clean; no one who’s been in the game this long is. The You-Name-It-Gates continue to swirl around her and her husband – some self-imposed, some conspiracy-driven. As someone who has scored left of Jesse Jackson and Teddy Kennedy on political orientation quizzes, I certainly wish she were more left-leaning. But that’s not a realistic victory strategy in this divisive political climate, although I suspect Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will pull her in that direction. While I wish she were less of a Hawk, I wish we all were. I wish we could outlaw guns and that there were no hate crimes. No American snipers. No road rage. A kinder, gentler nation, we are not.
And while I wish she were more independent of Wall Street, I’ve become cynical enough to believe that such entanglements are the only way you can get elected in this Brave New World of Citizens United. As a nation, we don’t have the stomach for campaign finance reform. It’s estimated that presidential candidates will need one-billion dollars to compete in 2016. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, we get the government we deserve.
In short, I foresee no other candidate who could better match my progressive leanings and still win.
Some sources say Hillary is ready to play The Female Card this time. Possibly even The Grandma Card (which I would discourage: Why compound sexism with ageism?) She doesn’t have to play either card because her impressive resume justifies her bid for the office. But I say let her use whatever it takes to drive home that our nation is ready for strong female leadership at the highest level.
We can handle it.
I’m fearful of the brutal treatment she’ll inevitably receive – certainly because she’s a Clinton but mostly because she’s a woman. She’ll be called ambitious – a bad thing for women to be. The sins-of-the-husband, real and imagined, will be exploited, just as they were used to undercut Ferraro’s candidacy.
You have to wonder why anyone would be willing to subject herself to that. Unless she feels the call to service deep in her soul.
Hillary has been vetted continually ever since her first appearance as the strong and not-so-silent partner of a powerful man. As with any candidate, this should and will continue. But in addition, she’ll be forced to endure pundits’ cracks about her hair, weight, wardrobe, daughter, and marriage. All the things that really matter in a presidential campaign.
If that candidate is a woman.
I’ll cry the first time I hear the words, Madame President. And cry even harder if I don’t.
copyright 2015 Patricia A. Nugent.
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of the play, The Stone that Started the Ripple, about a modern-day reunion of the founding suffragists. Her book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, consists of 300 vignettes about the caregiving and loss experience. Her creative nonfiction essays have won awards and have been featured in national trade and literary publications. She can be contacted at email@example.com.