clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Don’t overlook the feminist triumph of Clinton's run

She confronted some of the same stereotypes leveled against the early suffragists — and still won the popular vote

Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite, on Election Day, in November

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign led to fresh attention to a related landmark moment in US history: the ratification of the 19th Amendment, in 1920, granting women the right to vote. Election Day saw a steady flow of pilgrims to the gravesite of suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony. Observers have noted that the white pant suits Clinton wore at key moments in the campaign — and, later, on Inauguration Day — evoke the white dresses worn by suffrage activists.

Clinton ultimately failed to crack the highest glass ceiling. Yet her powerful run, which included a popular-vote victory of nearly 3 million ballots, remains a significant accomplishment for women in politics.

It must also not be forgotten that Clinton faced arguments during her race that closely echoed those made in opposition to women’s right to vote. Still-fresh anger over some of the abuse she was subjected to helped to drive turnout to the women’s march in Washington this weekend.

Only 100 years ago, many people found the idea of a woman voting degrading

It’s difficult for many people to imagine the mindset in which it seemed natural and obvious for women to be excluded from politics

But suffrage for women represented a challenge to centuries of established political thought. The central justification was the conviction that women are by their very nature unfit for political life. The political realm was inherently masculine, while the private realm of home and family was the women’s place. The ideal of separate spheres has shown remarkable endurance. As late as 1961, the United States Supreme Court maintained in Hoyt v. Florida that states could reasonably exclude women from jury duty because women were “the center of home and family life” and this obligation should not be neglected.

For opponents of suffrage, masculinity, rationality, and power were intrinsically linked, while helplessness, sentiment, and dependence were defining characteristics of femininity. This self-evident reality was articulated by writer Octavius B. Frothingham in 1890:

The masculine represents judgment, the practicable, the expedient, the possible, while the feminine represents emotion, what ought to be … The predominance of sentiment in woman renders her essentially an idealist.

The political arena was a corrupt and rancorous place. Excluding women from politics protected them from debasement and corruption, and allowed them to maintain their innate purity and grace. It was, suffrage opponents explained, because they held women —but importantly, only white women — in such high esteem that they denied them the vote. In the words of Representative Frank Clark (D-FL) from the floor of the US House in 1915:

I do not wish to see the day come when the woman of my race in my state shall trail their skirts in the muck and mire of partisan politics. I prefer to look to the American woman as she always has been, occupying her proud estate as the queen of the American home, instead of regarding her as a ward politician in the cities … The American mother, the American woman, has my admiration, my respect, and my love—

Women who entered politics, on the other hand, relinquished any right to chivalry and the protection of men. A popular anti-suffrage cartoon presented women with a choice: Forsake suffrage and retain the safety and happiness of the home, or obtain the vote and accept the degradation of the “street corner.”

1915 advertisement arguing that women would end up on "the street corner" if they got the vote.
1915 advertisement (lithograph).
The History Project, University of California at Davis; New York Public Library

Women’s innate physical weakness made them unable to withstand the demands of the public sphere, including the casting of a ballot. Justice Bradley famously explained in the Supreme Court Case Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), which upheld Illinois’ prohibition on women attorneys, that “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”

Surely, nearly a century after women won the right to vote, these ideas no longer hold full sway over the American psyche. Attitudes toward women in political life have been transformed since the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Yet in much the same way as the struggle for suffrage forced opponents to articulate a rationale for excluding women from politics, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy laid bare the extent to which some of the same assumptions and prejudices remain powerful subtexts in American life.

Nobody had more respect for women than the men who didn’t want them to vote

Indeed, what was once subtext became text in 2016. What better evidence that we equate political power with masculinity than a political candidate literally defending the size of his manhood on national television? How better to express that politics is fundamentally the purview of men than to claim the female candidate doesn’t have “a presidential look?”

Just as anti-suffragists emphasized their opposition was grounded in their deep esteem for women, Donald Trump assured voters, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.” Yet, once a woman debases herself by entering politics, she becomes a “nasty woman” deserving of humiliation and defamation. Anyone looking for contemporary evidence that a woman who dares enter politics has relinquished any right to respect, much less chivalry, need only peruse the slogans on many T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers found at Trump events.

The persistent expectation that women should embody the highest ethical and moral standards may help explain why actions that might be considered politics as usual if performed by a man generate not just criticism, but impassioned cries of “lock her up!” And while Americans may no longer believe that women are too weak to mark a ballot or file a brief, the possibility that a woman lacks the “stamina” to fulfill the duties of the presidency can still resonate.

The Clinton campaign and the struggle for suffrage now also share a narrative of defeat. Within just a few short years of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, multiple magazine headlines, from Harper’s to Good Housekeeping, asked: Is Women’s Suffrage a Failure? Their answer was usually yes: Women failed to turn out in large numbers or vote as a distinctive bloc. Women failed to reform the corrupt political system or produce compassionate public policy.

It is true that it took decades for women to become an electoral force, if the standard is determining the election outcome. (It would also, we should note, take decades for enfranchisement to be a reality for women of color). Unquestionably, the elevation of yet another man to the highest office in the land is more evidence that full equality for women in politics has not yet been achieved.

These realities should not cause us to understate the magnitude of both events, however. The ratification of the 19th Amendment and the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton are consequential for how they challenged the ideology of gender difference articulated by opponents of both.

If entering politics is thought to debase women, reclaiming “nasty woman” as a badge of honor is a repudiation.

If men esteem women too much to let them govern themselves — explicitly in 1915, subconsciously today — women’s voice in elections (a voice, like men’s, shaped deeply by race, class, and other identities) is a powerful statement.

If some still think women are too weak for public life, women with power — over their own ballots or as the standard bearer for the nation’s oldest political party —transform our perceptions of what is possible for women in politics.

If people believe, explicitly or, as is more common today, implicitly, that women don’t belong in politics, women’s presence at the polls and on the ballot is a victory.

Clinton failed to shatter that “highest and hardest glass ceiling.” The persistent of rhetoric that denies that women deserve to be in the political arena is disheartening, to say the least.

Yet win or lose, ultimately Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy refutes the ideas articulated by the anti-suffragists and revived again this year. Politics is a place that women enter, a place where women count, and a place where women belong.

Christina Wolbrecht is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and director of the university’s Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy

This piece is part of The Big Idea, a section for outside contributors' opinions about, and analysis of, the most important issues in politics, science, and culture.