Hillary Clinton’s historic achievement

Some say 'yes' to female president, but 'no' to Clinton

Hillary Clinton is set to be the first female major party candidate for the US presidency. Is the country prepared for a female president? Polls suggest so, but views among voters are divided.

When Mrs Hillary Clinton swept onto the stage at her victory rally last Tuesday night, the thunderbolt of history struck many Americans, no matter their love or loathing for her: A woman could be the next president of the United States.

But like so much about Mrs Clinton, her speech, which lit up televisions and smartphones and social media all day last Wednesday, also produced conflicting emotions.

For some, it was an inspiring moment that brought home in a visceral way that Mrs Clinton is the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party.

For others, there were chills and discomfort that this next step forward in our national story was unfolding with this particular woman.

"It's undeniably historic," said Ms Margaret Saadi Kramer, 48, who works in the Los Angeles music industry and is an ardent supporter of Mrs Clinton's Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Despite strong support among older women, some others do not see Mrs Clinton as a transformative figure for her gender, because they regard her as a Clinton first, a perennial politician second and a woman third

"I think it's incredible. No matter who you're voting for, you have to give it up for her tenacity and her work ethic."

Still, Ms Kramer added: "As qualified as she is - and she is very qualified - I don't think ethically she's the best."

For Mrs Clinton and her allies, the rally was carefully scripted and precisely executed, right down to the debut of a three-minute introductory video that interspersed images of the candidate with pictures of Gloria Steinem, Rosa Parks, Sandra Day O'Connor, and suffragists and protesters over the past two centuries. The goal was to cast Mrs Clinton in the euphoric glow of trailblazing women, with the hope that people would reconsider who she is or, at least, take a measure of pride in her achievement.

"There's an assumption that the whole country knows her and that she can't do anything to change their view, good or bad, of her, but I think that's not true," said Ms Hilary Rosen, a Democratic political strategist who has close ties to the Clinton campaign. "When you are all of a sudden a nominee for president of the United States, you get a different look. People will give you a second look."

But interviews last Wednesday indicated Mrs Clinton's achievement had intensified feelings that many Americans already held about her. Many of her admirers were ecstatic, while those torn about her sounded ever more ambivalent.

"There was a thump, thump," said Denver doctor Jackie Stern Bellowe, 58, an enthusiastic Clinton supporter, referring to her heart. "I'm a physician who has spent an awful lot of time in big meetings with a lot of men. And there is a huge glass ceiling in medicine."

Yet Chicago retiree Judy Kowal, 71, a Sanders supporter who said she would vote for Mrs Clinton in November, sounded unmoved.

"I think it's wonderful" that a woman will be at the top of the ticket, Ms Kowal said. "I just wish it was a different woman."

And in a year in which presidential politics has taken an extremely negative turn - with both Mrs Clinton and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mr Donald Trump, viewed unfavourably by most Americans - some voters, even those who back Mrs Clinton, were left feeling dispirited.

"I think that if she does win, as the first female president, she will kind of represent all women, and she has her flaws, as we all know," said Ms Nicole Lee, 22, a painter and waitress from Richmond, Virginia, who voted for Mrs Clinton in her state's Democratic primary. "It's also sad that her reputation kind of entails everything that happened with her husband, which is a bummer. And of course that would only happen to a woman."

#GIRLIGUESSIMWITHHER

Before last Tuesday, many admirers of Mrs Clinton were perplexed that the prospect of the first female president of the US had not caused anything like the national soul-searching, cultural heat or political exhilaration produced by Mr Barack Obama eight years ago.

But unlike Mr Obama, who catapulted onto the national stage as a virtual political unknown in 2004 and snatched the Democratic Party's presidential nomination from her four years later, Mrs Clinton is the most scrutinised woman in American politics. Last Wednesday, comparisons between the two were inevitable.

"Eight years ago, I thought that would be the greatest moment," said Ms Shakila Forbes, 25, a recent graduate of Clark Atlanta University, who is African-American. "But now I feel like Hillary Clinton running for president is the greatest, and it's just like, what is there to come after this? America just keeps surprising me."

But Atlanta insurance agent Vicki Hutchins, who is black, said she found more meaning in Mr Obama's achievement. And like many voters, she lamented a campaign consumed more by sound bites and quarrels than by policies, people and history. On Twitter, some black women adopted a hashtag to express their ambivalence: #GirlIGuessImWithHer.

"I think people are excited about a woman being nominated, but I think politics right now has become very circus-like, and it has taken away from the sanctity of it," said Ms Hutchins, who gave her age as "40-ish". Of Mr Obama's election, she said: "That was one for our race and one for all that our people have faced in history."

Despite strong support among older women across the country, some others do not see Mrs Clinton as a transformative figure for her gender, because they regard her as a Clinton first, a perennial politician second and a woman third.

The novelty of a female president is also not what it once was. The election of women as presidents and prime ministers in Britain, Germany, India and other countries decreases the impact of Mrs Clinton's candidacy, and many younger American women were raised to believe that they could achieve anything and that a woman was sure to be president someday. And some supporters said there was fear that focusing on Mrs Clinton's gender could be politically dangerous, possibly alienating some men and handing a weapon to Mr Trump.

"The worry has been, don't discuss the 'first woman president' idea because it might provoke a backlash," said Ms Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist. "It's almost like we're in a no-praise zone, and it's weird, because we've had 230 years of presidential history and no one can say that Clinton's candidacy isn't historic."

For many American women who never thought they would live to see a female president, last Tuesday may have been a night for celebrating, but the true test will come in November. Some said the moment's import was amplified by the fact that Mrs Clinton's opponent is Mr Trump, a candidate with a combative alpha-male style who has already attacked her husband's sexual history, mocked women's looks and engaged in acerbic feuds with women from Rosie O'Donnell to Megyn Kelly.

"To me, the White House is still the ultimate treehouse with a big sign on it that says, 'No Girls Allowed'," said former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who considered a run for the Democratic nomination in 1988. "If we could pull down that sign, it would make such a difference."

HISTORIC MILESTONE

And for women who have been dissected and debated in the public spotlight for years, there is undeniable excitement. Barbra Streisand, the singer, actress and long-time Democrat, wrote in an e-mail that as Americans focused on the stark contrast between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump, she was confident that "the pride in electing the first woman president of the United States will be recognised as the historical milestone it will be".

Polls show that most Americans believe the US is ready for a female president. In March 2008, 61 per cent of registered voters thought the nation was "ready to elect a black president", according to a CBS News poll, while this February, a CNN survey of registered voters found that 80 per cent believed it was "ready for a female president".

Outside the White House last Wednesday, Mr Buck Johnson, 26, a Republican from New Jersey who leads tours in Washington and calls himself "kind of a feminist", said it had felt historic when Mr Obama became the first black president.

"I think African-Americans have been persecuted a lot more," said Mr Johnson, who is white. "Whereas I guess, a woman president, it just seems - I don't know, women are 50 per cent of the population."

Surveys have also shown that most voters do not view Mrs Clinton's candidacy as special.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in April found that 71 per cent of voters thought it would not be long before other women became major- party presidential nominees, while only 24 per cent said it was unlikely to occur again soon.

Still, professor of communications Nichola Gutgold at Pennsylvania State University, who writes about women in politics, saw significance in this moment.

Walking around campus last Wednesday, she said she kept bumping into people who wanted to talk about it.

"I think there is this little bit of exuberance," said Professor Gutgold, who, in a stroke of good timing, was signing her new children's book, Madam President, yesterday at a bookstore Mrs Clinton frequents in Chappaqua, New York.

"Even from people who won't support her, I still think people are saying, 'It's about time'."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Some say 'yes' to female president, but 'no' to Clinton'. Print Edition | Subscribe