Hillary Clinton, the first woman who had a real shot at the presidency, has finally set off a national awakening among women. The only catch? She did it by losing.
In the year since a stoic Mrs. Clinton watched as Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, a fervor has swept the country, prompting women’s marches, a record number of female candidates running for office and an outcry about sexual assault at all levels of society.
Even those women who disliked Hillary-the-candidate or who backed her opponent Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary now credit the indignities and cynicism Mrs. Clinton faced in the 2016 election and her unexpected loss to Mr. Trump, an alleged sexual abuser, for the current moment.
We wouldn’t be here — black gowns at the Golden Globes, sexual assault victims invited to the State of the Union address, a nationwide, woman-led voter registration drive timed to the anniversary of the Women’s March — without Mrs. Clinton’s defeat.
And yet, for Mrs. Clinton, it’s the latest — and perhaps last — cruel twist in a public life full of them. Her loss to Mr. Trump helped ignite the kind of movement she’d once been poised to lead but that she now mostly watches from the sidelines.
Ever since she wielded a bullhorn at Wellesley in the late 1960s and later instructed her classmates to “practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible,” Hillary Rodham seemed destined to empower women. But over the next several decades, the promise of that young activist collided with the realities of presidential elections and her husband’s personal scandals.
Mrs. Clinton — scarred by the blowback for saying she chose to pursue a career rather than staying home to bake cookies, chastised by her husband’s West Wing aides for declaring that “women’s rights are human rights” in Beijing in 1995 and warned by her 2016 campaign chairman to avoid talking about glass ceilings — came to adopt a more tentative embrace of how she talked about her gender.
Throughout her career, many women would view Mrs. Clinton as an imperfect vessel for the feminist cause. She was a Yale-educated lawyer who at the height of the 1970s women’s movement moved to Arkansas to put her own ambitions on hold in furtherance of her husband’s career. A refrain I’d often hear from voters on the 2016 campaign trail was that they were happy to vote for a woman, just not “that woman.”
But the roiling, messy, often painful progress made since Mr. Trump took office has recast Mrs. Clinton, who recently topped Gallup’s poll of most admired women. Her career brings to light the truth that there is no perfect vessel, that sooner or later, the harder we strive, the higher we climb, we all become that woman.
It’s now nearly a year since several million women with pink pussy hats and homemade signs took to the streets in cities across the country to protest Mr. Trump. Mrs. Clinton didn’t attend the Women’s March on Washington, but the role she played in spurring the current wave of activism has become more clear.
“None of us were prepared for this loss in the sense that we didn’t have well-laid plans to mobilize,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. “But that’s what’s happened, it’s been a year of channeling, catching up to the activism as much as trying to foment engagement.”
After Mr. Trump’s victory, the concerns that women would be reluctant to come forward with accusations of sexual assault and harassment spread, given that millions of Americans and a majority of white female voters seemed unfazed by an audio recording of Mr. Trump bragging about violating women.
“To watch him win was to make women feel like ‘I just exposed myself for absolutely nothing,’ ” said Joan Walsh, a writer for The Nation and a CNN political analyst.
But the opposite happened. The collective voice of victims of sexual assault, spurred by the revelations against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, has become a forceful, cathartic revolt.
Political analysts predicted that Mrs. Clinton’s loss would cause women to retreat from running for public office, turned off by the combat and nastiness ushered in by a reality-TV star who vanquished the bookish, dutiful woman. Instead, data shows the number of women seeking office is rising at every level.
In her recent book, “What Happened,” Mrs. Clinton is forthright about the country’s mixed opinions of her and about the news media’s treatment of her (including by Matt Lauer, who has since been fired from NBC News after he was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior). “Then there was the matter of my gender,” Mrs. Clinton writes.
But on issues of sexual assault, Mrs. Clinton has remained mostly muted, her hands tied as liberals rethink how President Bill Clinton’s accusers were dismissed and shamed in the 1990s. Even the #StillWithHer crowd seems to agree that the #MeToo movement cannot feature Mrs. Clinton.
In November, Patti Solis Doyle, a senior aide to Mrs. Clinton from 1991 to 2008, published an article on CNN’s website in which she said she didn’t take the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Mr. Clinton as seriously as she should have.
In an interview, Ms. Solis Doyle said that she and other White House aides considered quitting at the time but that would have just hurt Mrs. Clinton. “Why would we punish her for his actions?” Even so, Ms. Solis Doyle said that, as for Mrs. Clinton, the #MeToo movement “is one area she cannot go.”
In the days after several Hollywood actresses told The Times and The New Yorker that Mr. Weinstein, a longtime donor to the Clintons, had harassed or assaulted them, Mrs. Clinton denounced his behavior, saying she was “shocked and appalled by the revelations.”
A debate ensued, with feminists asking why Mrs. Clinton always seemed to be held responsible for the badly behaving men around her. “The people saying, ‘Why won’t Hillary go away?’ are the same people saying, ‘Why hasn’t Hillary condemned this terrible thing that’s happened,’” said Nita Chaudhary, a founder of UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group.
It’s impossible to know whether the #MeToo movement would have swept the nation had Mrs. Clinton finally shattered “that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
Conservative critics argue that a second Clinton administration would have allowed Mr. Weinstein to maintain his status as Hollywood kingmaker and powerful Democratic donor. “The predators, most of them media and Hollywood liberals, would still be in power,” Michael Goodwin wrote in a column in The New York Post that Mr. Trump recommended to his 46.6 million Twitter followers.
Liberals say, policy advancements aside, Mrs. Clinton’s victory would probably have led to a brief period of euphoria and a return to complacency — or worse, a backlash against ambitious women.
Mrs. Clinton enters a select club of losing presidential candidates whose defeats lead to larger cultural movements. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide, but the bruising finish motivated conservatives to organize, establish think tanks, publish right-leaning magazines and encourage other conservatives to run.
“It took a while, but eventually the movement surfaced with Ronald Reagan,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian. “That was the success that came out of the huge failure of 1964.”
Ms. Goodwin sees parallels to what Mrs. Clinton’s loss to Mr. Trump (and in her case, winning of the popular vote) could lead to among women. “It’s hard to see when you’re in the middle of it,” she said. “But it feels like something’s happening, a fervor, an excitement, an optimism.”
Even before Mr. Trump took the oath of office, some feminists sought to move beyond the Clinton years. Last January, the organizers of the Woman’s March on Washington released a list of 28 “revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march,” including Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Malala Yousafzai. The list did not include Mrs. Clinton.
In October, the Women’s March faced criticism for choosing Mr. Sanders to speak on the opening night of its national convention. (The organizers later apologized, and Mr. Sanders bowed out.)
Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the Women’s March who supported Mr. Sanders in the primary, credited Mr. Trump’s victory — not Mrs. Clinton’s defeat — with the current reckoning among women. “People were so aghast and felt betrayed that so many of our fellow Americans voted for a misogynist, accused sexual predator,” she said.
The 2018 midterm elections will test whether the Women’s March and related movements can translate into electoral power, the way conservatives eventually turned the 1964 rout into the Reagan revolution. In the meantime, allies of Mrs. Clinton see something tragic about the Trump era, and the resistance mounting against it, as the final note to her public life.
“I guess every cloud has its silver lining, and this is it,” Ms. Solis Doyle said. “But in terms of Hillary’s perspective and career it’s sad that it comes as she’s diminishing, some would say vanishing, from the political stage.”
Credit: New York Times