What Hillary Clinton's Campaign Means to Democratic Women in America
At the Democratic National Convention this week, Clinton's female supporters praised the majesty of the moment—but kept their expectations limited.
All photos by Jason Bergman
This week at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton was described over and over again as some variation of "competent" or "experienced." Her qualifications were lauded by everyone from the billionaire ex-mayor of New York City to a former CIA boss to undocumented immigrants. This narrative—which Democrats hope will help cast Donald Trump as an unhinged loon—is also, it's gotta be said, a bit boring.
Part of this stems from Clinton herself, whose brand of politics is more pragmatic than inspirational. When I spoke to her admirers in Philadelphia this week, they tended to scoff at words like "revolution" that Bernie Sanders supporters have been throwing around this election cycle. It makes sense—Clinton's fans like that their candidate is a savvy veteran of the political system, and don't want or need her to be some kind of radical. As I canvassed delegates, businesspeople, activists, and politicians about the first woman nominated by a major US political party for president I was struck by the majesty of the moment on one hand, and the limits of even her core supporters' expectations on the other.
Liberal criticism of Clinton aside, though, it's impossible to ignore the symbolism of a major party nominating a woman as its presidential candidate for the first time in American history. On Tuesday, when the former First Lady officially won the Democratic nomination, and each night of the convention after that, groups of women sobbed on the arena floor, celebrating the seminal moment in American political history. Some people were actually speechless, just shaking their heads at one another and marveling at what they had witnessed.
"If there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch," Clinton told her flock in a video address Tuesday night, "let me just say, I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next."
That sentiment carried over among the delegates and Clinton diehards I spoke to at hotels and convention parties, as I tried to get a sense of how it was all sinking in. "It is absolutely tremendous to have the most qualified candidate to run for president of the United States be a woman," Sonia Ramirez, director of government affairs for North America's Building Trades Unions, told me. "For those of us who are women and work in the professional sector, this something we usually encounter—we have to be exceptional to be chosen to lead."
Sara Ruiz, Ramirez's teenage niece, was standing right next to her. "It makes me really excited as someone who's a young woman of color getting into politics, it's very exciting to see," she said, of Clinton's nomination. "My friends were very excited for me, they were a little bit jealous—they were Bernie fans but I think they've come around to realize that in order to defeat Donald Trump we need to elect Hillary Clinton."
Clinton has her female critics, of course—Sanders rallies were full of fiery progressive women, and he's been supported by celebrities like Rosario Dawson and Susan Sarandon. But it was striking how many women of power and influence, including many outside of the political sphere, appeared at the convention to point to Clinton's success as a source of strength and pride.
"Hillary is a badass," Shonda Rhymes, creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, told the Democratic Party's women's caucus on Thursday. "Hillary gets it done. Hillary is squad goals, people."
Clinton fans seem aware that one of the campaign's challenges going forward will be convincing left-wing voters who distrust Clinton and suspect #squadgoals–style rhetoric is an inauthentic attempt to cover up the candidate's centrism, and lack of progressive bonafides. "Those of us who work with the party directly do need to give those folks confidence that we'll carry their values forward with Hillary," Ramirez told me.
In the marbled lobby bar of the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Philadelphia Wednesday, where donors and high-powered operatives were already imbibing heavily by midday, it was clear that Clinton's campaign was about continuity. That may not be sexy—though President Barack Obama did everything he could to make it so with his soaring speech that night. But for many mainstream Democrats, Clinton's competency is enough.
"I'm not excited by her as much as I am confident in her abilities to be a great president," a well-coiffed white guy told me at the swanky hotel bar. "It doesn't have as revolutionary of a feel because she's really going to be continuing the work that happened the last eight years."
Another aspect of Clinton's appeal is that she seems to have evolved with the Democratic Party as it's shifted to the left in recent years. "Two years ago, it was almost unimaginable that Hillary Clinton would be campaigning on debt-free college, expanding Social Security, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and the public option," Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. "The fact that she's there isn't necessarily a revolution—it is symbolic of years of progressive hard work moving the Democratic Party in a populist direction."
Stephanie Leifer, a San Franciscan who works in game marketing and was hawking Hillary swag at a downtown hotel this week, told me that negative pins and lapels weren't doing nearly as well as she expected—attendees weren't into hating Trump as much as they were high on Clinton. That's not exactly stunning at a party convention built around propping up someone who is already American political royalty, but it's still surprising in an election cycle where Democrats have been ginning up fears about Donald Trump in an effort to get people to vote.
"As a woman, it's just a really big deal," Leifer told me of Clinton's nomination.
The Clinton campaign fully embraced the magnitude of the occasion at the convention's final night, with the Democratic women of the Senate appearing on stage together to hype their lady and their moment. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin—both lefty favorites—gushed over Clinton, as did Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, the first so-called "dean" of the Senate's women and the longest-serving female member of Congress. The scene was as arresting as any all week.
Even Snoop Dogg, who performed at a "unity party" hosted by a trio of Democratic super PACs later that night, had special praise for Clinton, referring to the nominee as the "first boss lady." A healthy swath of the country is locked in on clearing a new threshold in politics right now, and even Berniacs nursing an ideological hangover would do well to stop and think about that—if only for a moment—before rolling their eyes.
"This is something I've been waiting for my entire life," Jazmin Gargoum, a Mississippi native working in organized labor in Washington, told me at a party for EMILY's List, a group that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women. "It was pretty inspiring as a kid to hear my dad and his Libyan-Arab friends talking about Hillary Clinton and how powerful and amazing she was," Gargoum told me. "As an Arab daughter, seeing how inspired they were by her, I was like, That is the kind of woman I want to grow up to be. It's incredible."
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