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What Hillary Clinton’s candidacy meant for women

Disappointment is inevitable in a democracy. Hope still matters.

Hillary Clinton Holds Primary Night Event In Brooklyn, New York Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This time last year, a lot of social media timelines were filled with women wearing suffragette white to the polls in honor of suffragette history and the expectation that the day would end with a victory speech from the first woman president of the United States. The polls consistently — if narrowly — predicted that Hillary Clinton would become the 45th president. Regardless of partisanship or ideology, for a few hours it seemed like a day of celebration and progress.

As we all know, it didn’t turn out that way. Although Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, she lost the Electoral College vote to Donald Trump. This happened less than a month after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, as it’s come to be known, had set off a storm over the Republican candidate’s attitudes about women and about gender and power.

For many women who began the day with high hopes of a shattered glass ceiling, it was a devastating disappointment. But can advocates of diversity, access, and progress for women find some comfort in the hope itself, despite the outcome? Can you find inspiration in wanting something that badly, even if you didn’t get it? Is there power in the dream of a woman president?

The first place to look for such power is in Clinton’s own flawed candidacy. There’s no shortage of postmortem analyses dissecting her skills on the campaign trail, her baggage from not one, not two, but all three of the most recent administrations. From her husband’s welfare reform to the Iraq War to the shortcomings of the Obama years, Clinton at some point had to answer for years of policy and missteps. She disappointed progressive activists, including prominent black intellectuals like Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who ended up publicly (if tepidly) supporting Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Her candidacy resonated especially well with a certain kind of college-educated and predominantly white vision of feminism, and the profound shortcomings of this ideology should not be downplayed. (About wearing white to the polls...)

Importantly, Trump’s victory happened in part because female solidarity didn’t pan out at the ballot box. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. And despite a record gender gap, plenty of women sympathize with Republican policy views — and made their 2016 choice accordingly.

On its face, it also seems that Clinton was held to a higher standard than men who have sought the same office, not least her 2016 opponent. Indeed, I wrote that the day after the election. But with her popular vote margin a matter of public record, I think we can also see the result a different way: A woman candidate, even one with the challenges Clinton faced, can be very competitive in a general election, can win the most votes.

Flesh-and-blood politicians falter and disappoint. The power of an inspiring candidacy is in the imagination it sparks. In this sense, what made Clinton’s candidacy most meaningful was that so many people could translate the record of an all-too-real politician into an abstract hope about a new role for women. This translation is an act of democratic imagination. Furthermore, democracy inevitably involves some uncertainty. Sometimes your candidate wins, and sometimes she loses. Losing an election isn’t a devastating setback. Losing the ability to imagine something different — imagining that leaders of a different party, gender, race, or ideology might change things — is a much more frightening prospect.

That supporters could envision Clinton as both a symbol and a vector of progress for women is especially notable on the heels of Barack Obama’s presidency. Around September 2015, I outlined a piece about what having an African-American presidency might tell us about what to expect from a woman president. I haven’t opened the file since, but I imagine someday I might need it. It’s mostly about polarization and the depths of angry division we might expect.

Many readers will recall that Obama’s presidency was unironically hailed as the end of racism in America. That hasn’t worked out. Obama himself has been criticized, notably by racial justice activists and scholars of black politics, for not doing enough to alleviate inequality and challenge problematic racial narratives.

Obama’s leadership didn’t end racism. Whoever the first woman president is, she won’t end sexism. But visual images alter how we think. Symbolic victories reflect changing values. New perspectives change policy, even if slowly.

Political science research suggests that descriptive representation — representation of characteristics as well as views — makes a difference. Jane Mansbridge outlines the ways in which “descriptive representation” can make a difference for public policy and enhance democracy for all citizens. Katherine Tate has done extensive work illustrating the importance of black representation; Tasha Philpot and Hanes Walton have applied these ideas to studies of support for African-American women who seek office. Women candidates also serve as role models who inspire young women to become active in politics.

While not all studies agree that demographic representation makes a difference in determining policy — the evidence is clearer that it affects perceptions and satisfaction with government — social scientists have generally found that a more diverse array of governing voices is a good thing. The energy around Clinton’s candidacy last year, even though it was unsuccessful, suggests that people outside the social science community share this perception.

On a deeper level, imagining new demographic groups ascending to the presidency allows us to think differently about power. It opens up ideas about who can access and wield power in ways that can be unsettling and provoke backlash. And when we’re talking about the US presidency, the power of the office also changes the person in it. Opening it up to new demographic groups doesn’t soften or dilute the huge amount of sometimes dangerous power that the executive branch has accumulated. But the hope and excitement around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy suggests that many people think it matters who holds that power.

This will be a difficult week for a lot of people. The gap between hopeful expectations and the eventual election result is tough to remember, especially for those who saw a possible Clinton presidency as an important step for women’s advancement. But we don’t have to stay stuck there. A record number of women have filed as candidates for public office. Amy Davidson Sorkin of the New Yorker offered up a bipartisan roster of women who might be the 46th president. The power of democratic imagination isn’t just in believing they can win. It’s in believing that having more women in power can make a difference.

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