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9 prominent feminists on what Hillary Clinton's historic candidacy really means

Democratic National Convention: Day Two Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is the first woman presidential nominee of a major American political party, and it’s very possible that she will become our first woman president.

This is a major historical milestone. But Clinton’s nomination, and the prospect of her election, doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone — even prominent, self-identified feminists.

That’s why Vox asked nine feminist activists, leaders, and thinkers about what this moment means to them, both personally and in the big picture. Is it a personal or political triumph? Is it a hollow victory or no victory at all? What will it change for women, feminism, and politics, and what are the limits of that change?

Here’s what they said.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and the prospect of her presidency, is emotionally significant for some

Sady Doyle, writer, author of the upcoming book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear ... and Why (Melville House):

I am both thrilled and terrified. Thrilled because "girls can't be president" was one of the first things a little boy ever flung into my face to prove that women were second-class citizens, and jokes about "not electing a woman president, because she'll get PMS and nuke everybody" were some of my first warning signs that misogyny was alive and intractable in the American consciousness.

I'm moved that we actually got here in my lifetime, and I'm glad that it's her: This woman, of all women, has had to fight to earn her place at the table. She deserves this.

Terrified, because we've never actually done this before, and as feminists we probably have no idea how it works. The misogyny is going to intensify over the course of this campaign, perhaps over the course of her presidency. ... The question of how to be tough on her, and hold her to her commitments without dehumanizing her, is new.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW):

My generation was present at the creation of the modern feminist movement. I read Betty Friedan, marched with Gloria Steinem, fought sexism at work, and challenged society’s assumptions that held women back. So of course I feel the tectonic plates of history shifting all around me.

But I'm keenly aware that for the generations that came of age after me, or are coming of age now, like my 25-year-old daughter, this moment validates their self-confidence and sense of possibility in a very different way. They haven't been asking themselves, "Can a woman be president?" To millennials, the answer is self-evident: Of course she can.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

My great-grandmother grew up in a time when women didn't have the right to vote — and now the country is ready to vote the first woman into the White House.

Teresa Younger, president and CEO of Ms. Foundation for Women:

I always say that growing up in North Dakota, I knew more about farming than feminism. That said, I knew and understood the power of women’s leadership and the power of women to create change in their communities — something that I now witness on a daily basis. As a woman of color in leadership, watching both President Obama and Secretary Clinton change the image of who can run for our country’s highest office means a lot to me.

Destiny Lopez, co-director of All* Above All Action Fund:

I'm a woman, a Latina, and a mother. It matters to me that there's a Latina on the Supreme Court — even more so because she upholds the rights and dignity of our community and communities everywhere. It matters to me to see a woman running for president. I want my daughter to grow up in a country where she sees no limit to her potential, a country where women and people of color are represented at every level of leadership.

For others it’s less significant, even problematic

Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst at Rewire, co-host of This Week in Blackness Prime:

Honestly, I wish I felt the gravitas that other women feel. I've just never been that excited about Hillary Clinton personally. I recognize the momentousness of the moment, and yet I don't feel a whole lot. I look at friends of mine who are so ecstatic about it and I'm happy for them, but that's about the extent of it.

Liza Featherstone, editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso):

I can’t say I identify with her personally. Her career has been dedicated to austerity, militarism, and repression — all the worst facets of life under neoliberal capitalism, and all of which are horrible for women — and I have tried to spend as much time as possible fighting those things.

Kathleen Geier, writer, contributor to False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton:

What does Clinton as the first woman president mean to me personally? Very little, I'm afraid. But then I'm dead inside. Seriously, in spite of my many misgivings about Clinton, I expected to be moved by my party's nomination of its first woman presidential candidate. But I'm not. I'm happy that my nieces, two of whom are still in grade school and two who just recently became adults, are coming of age in a country where gender is not necessarily a bar to the highest office in the land. But that's about it; the rest seems anticlimactic.

Kim Tran, writer, doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley:

At one point in my life, I would have been thrilled Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate. When I was younger, I thought feminism was solely and exclusively about "women’s rights" and breaking the glass ceiling. And while both of those things remain important, the person I am now knows feminism to be so much more than the ascension of a white woman to the highest position of power in the world. For me, this moment symbolizes the absence of mainstream intersectional feminism in which race, class, sexuality, and ability are present and necessarily discussed.

On what having Hillary Clinton as president would mean for feminism and politics

Teresa Younger:

Secretary Clinton’s candidacy is symbolic of how far we have come. Historically our nation has not been inclusive and has silenced the voices of many of its citizens. It’s been almost 100 years since women were granted the right to vote, so this nomination represents a tangible shift in the culture of American politics that has been a long time in the making.

Terry O’Neill:

Lots of politicians call themselves feminist, but Hillary Clinton digs deeper into her character and personal beliefs.  Hillary Clinton is a proud feminist, meaning, for example, she recognizes abortion care is health care and women should have full access, including Medicaid and private health insurance coverage. It also means she doesn't apologize for seeking the highest office — she is putting herself out there, unapologetically seeking power because she intends to use the power of the presidency to improve lives. My fondest hope is that not only will girls know that they can grow up to be president, but boys will know they can be followers of women leaders.

Imani Gandy:

The election of a white woman to the highest office doesn't say a whole lot about my feminism. I'm far more moved about what Michelle Obama's tenure as first lady says about feminism — about black feminism — her raising black daughters, as she so poignantly pointed out during her convention speech, in a house that was built by slaves.

Destiny Lopez:

Hillary Clinton is a longtime champion for reproductive rights and justice, and her statements on the campaign trail show she intends to continue this legacy. I’ve been particularly encouraged by her full-throated support for lifting the Hyde Amendment, the federal ban on abortion coverage in the Medicaid health insurance program. Practically, we need to lift this restriction to remove a primary barrier to abortion access for low-income women; symbolically, this move shows her commitment to elevating in the national conversation an issue that disproportionately impacts those so often left out of political dialogue: poor women, women of color, and young women.

Cecile Richards:

Make no mistake: Access to health care and safe, legal abortion are on the line and on the ballot this year — and Hillary Clinton is the most committed nominee to reproductive rights in history.

Kathleen Geier:

Hillary Clinton's true feminist legacy remains to be seen. In any case, it will have little to do with whether she succeeds in shattering the glass ceiling of the presidency. Instead, it will rest on whether she enacts the kinds of feminist public policies that could be game changers for working women.

Sady Doyle:

A lot of people assumed that the first female president would have to be conservative and anti-woman in order to offset her gender and win an election: the Margaret Thatcher model, or, if you prefer, the Palin option. It's a very real sign of progress that we got a liberal Democrat, with a stated record of supporting feminism specifically, into such a powerful position.

That may not be immediately visible, because the thing about huge social sea changes is that by the time they actually pay off, the world has changed to accommodate them: They look "normal," so we can't imagine how weird and radical they would have looked even a few decades ago.

But this isn't a single-shot solution to sexism, nor is Hillary Clinton's feminism representative of all feminisms. I don't know a single Clinton supporter who thinks it is.

Liza Featherstone:

The first woman president of the United States is indeed significant. But plenty of other countries have had female heads of state — many have, like Clinton, benefited from marriage or family connections to powerful men — and it’s really not that interesting when you consider the conservatism of her actual politics. I do think criticism of Hillary — and protest of her policies if she becomes president, as I hope she will, since Trump, a racist and nativist demagogue, is worse — can help feminism to mature.

On how much representation matters, and what its limits are

Teresa Younger:

Representation is critical to achieving true equality and social justice in our country. Women have historically played a significant role in making change happen. When we are a part of the conversation, we bring attention to the issues that are most important to us and our communities. But women are still dramatically underrepresented on the local, state, and national level. While we are roughly 51 percent of our nation’s population, we still have abysmal representation in company boardrooms [and] legislative chambers, and only make up 20 percent of Congress.

Imani Gandy:

Representation absolutely matters. But it's a sticky wicket when you're a black woman. Obama's candidacy felt far more momentous to me than Clinton's. I almost feel better represented by Obama than by Hillary even though when it comes to my main issue — reproductive rights and justice — Hillary is already campaigning to the left of where Obama campaigned in 2008. I just don't feel the connection to Hillary that I feel to the Obamas, although I know there are some black women who do.

Representation has its limits to the extent that folks are going to think, "WELP! We did it! We have a woman candidate!" and fail to recognize that we need to keep pushing the envelope.

Kathleen Geier:

So far as the big picture is concerned, Clinton's candidacy changes very little. We've known for some time that voter bias against female candidates has substantially diminished, and that female candidates do just as well as men. Clinton's ascendancy is the logical outcome of this process, and if Clinton hadn't been the first female presidential nominee, it would have been someone like Elizabeth Warren or Kirsten Gillibrand or (God forbid) Joni Ernst or Nikki Haley.

We were long overdue for a woman president, and I was confident that even if Clinton didn't prevail this year, we were bound to see one within the next 10 to 15 years. Besides, symbolism only gets us so far. What's much more important is the eradication of structural barriers to women's advancement, and historically Clinton has never been a champion of those kinds of transformative policies. To be honest, I would have been far more excited to see the first socialist nominated as president.

Kim Tran:

Regardless of your politics, it’s clear that a woman in a position of great power is still very threatening to American society. That’s a thing white liberal feminists and I can agree on. Men are lauded for their roles as fathers and leaders. Look at the widespread adoration of how President Obama interacts with children.

On the other hand, Clinton is stuck. Focus groups show reminding America that she’s a grandmother seems disingenuous, but she needs to be humanized and made more likable. So she needs to be seen as maternal while also distancing herself from the femininity and weakness associated with that position.

Liza Featherstone:

Look, when I was a kid in the ’70s there was a book in my second-grade classroom called Mothers Can Do Anything! It was so corny and ’70s with orangey-yellow illustrations of smiling ladies as astronauts and so forth. The fact that I still remember it is important — obviously representation affects us psychically, affects our aspirations in some ways that we can’t quantify.

But there isn’t much evidence that having a female head of state affects the material well-being of women ... universal social programs (free college, socialized health care, child care) — those are the things that really help women achieve something closer to parity with men. Just ask the poor British women who lost their council housing under Margaret Thatcher — I bet they didn’t feel particularly empowered.

Terry O’Neill:

Hillary's election doesn't mean we are suddenly in a post-patriarchal society. ... I have no doubt that the people who are most uncomfortable with the idea of a woman POTUS are the ones who will proclaim most loudly that sexism no longer exists because of Hillary Clinton's extraordinary achievement. But that is why NOW is here — we will be calling bullshit on that. And here is the good news: The fight for equality goes on, but what’s different is that Hillary Clinton's candidacy is causing more people to see the problem and feel compelled to address it.

Sady Doyle:

My idea of social justice rests heavily on lived experience: If you've been there, you're more qualified and informed to speak about it. Having female leadership, and women in political office specifically, often means having leadership that is more qualified and prepared to push through measures on issues that affect women. We need to have a seat at the table in order to define the conversation and make demands.

That said, we all know what Carly Fiorina stood for, and it wasn't women's health. Pure representation is never enough; women are also specifically incentivized, by sexism, to be the "good woman" who permits and aids sexist policies and practices.

Destiny Lopez:

Young people, people of color, immigrants, and women all have something in common: We've never seen real representation of our communities or our priorities in our government. It's past time that the faces of the diverse new American electorate are represented. But representation is not enough. We need the voices, vision, and values of our communities to be reflected in the policies that shape the future of this country as well.

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