Hillary Clinton’s life, in many respects, traces the arc of progress for women in American society. Her mother, Dorothy Rodham, was born a year before the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the vote.
It has taken a long, long time for that amendment’s promise of women’s full participation in our democracy to be realized. Clinton moved it a big step closer this week, as she became the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party. And yet, this reality still feels so surprising, so shocking to many even now.
Clinton’s nomination — bringing women, barred first by law and then by custom, to the pinnacle of American politics — is to be celebrated as inspiration for young Americans, and as hope for women in nations and cultures that continue to deny them the most basic opportunities. It is further proof that opening doors to women elevates and strengthens our nation.
At a moment when political discourse has been divisive and dark, she summoned optimism in her call for Americans to work together on the challenges before us. “America is once again at a moment of reckoning,” she said in excerpts from her speech Thursday night released in advance. “Bonds of trust and respect are fraying,” she said. “We are clear eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.”
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Clinton’s strength and tenacity were formed growing up in an era of few opportunities for women, and yet she built a career that spanned the world. Her education and work ethic provided her many avenues for success, but she chose a path of service to people with far fewer options than she possessed.
For four decades, Clinton has worked and advocated, listened to and spoken for children, the poor and the voiceless. She has absorbed personal and professional blows that would have left many others on the canvas, and delivered some, as well. Few politicians, and certainly not her opponent, carry the intellectual muscle that Clinton brings to the race for the White House.
Some Americans still remain deeply uncomfortable with women leading corporations, let alone the free world. No woman is more aware of this than Clinton, who has struggled as first lady, senator and secretary of state to strike the right balance between what society expects of women and what she aspired to accomplish.
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as the nation’s first African-American president, historians wondered what combination of qualifications, experience and personality made him, of all black leaders, the one to break through that barrier. It is likewise for Clinton. Is she the nominee because she is more qualified than just about any candidate for the presidency or because she is the wife of a former president? Skeptical voters have scrutinized her age, voice, tone, even clothing as qualifiers for the White House. No wonder women make up less than one-fifth of Congress, and only six are governors.
What is certain is that Clinton has had to work harder under twice the scrutiny. Her challenge now is to compel voters to judge her on her merits and ideas, rather than her gender or her husband’s record.
Clinton’s rise has not been smooth or particularly graceful. Some of her positions seem born more of political expediency than conviction. She can be secretive and defensive in the face of legitimate questions and criticism. Her failure to hold an open news conference for months shows a reluctance to submit to candid questions. Her candidacy is an act of courage; greater transparency would demonstrate that she does not intend to govern from a position of fear.
Clinton has had a lifelong commitment to public service, and now on the road to the White House, she continues a quest to improve our world.