In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s historic achievement, there has emerged a strange kind of handwringing, as though celebrating the first woman to receive a major party’s Presidential nomination is somehow an empty distraction from some other, more real concern. But I know firsthand just how real the impact of this kind of “first woman” can be. By a happy accident of circumstance, my childhood rabbi was Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first American woman to be formally ordained a rabbi, and only the second woman ever. Anywhere.
I loved Rabbi Priesand for her winding, storytelling sermons, the warm, slightly self-deprecating chuckle she’d use to punctuate a point. I loved studying world religions with her in Confirmation class, loved that she was the kind of smart that made you feel smarter, too. Her office door always seemed to be open, and I loved the way she tended to her congregation like a small-town doctor of the soul.
I didn’t love her as a symbol because she wasn’t one to me. She was the only rabbi I knew. By the time I discovered how extraordinary her normalcy was, I was a teenager. We were in her office for some reason, and I noticed the photos from her rabbinical school days, her long hair and mod clothes standing out against a sea of men. I asked questions about her story, and she answered them, not bragging, but with some pride. It was the only day I remember talking with her about gender. Mostly I just learned about gender from watching her: women are authoritative. Women are holy. Women do things men tell us we can’t do.
And it wasn’t just the girls at Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey who learned these lessons. One evening after services, the little brother of one of my friends turned to his parents and asked, “Can men be rabbis?”
So yes, representation matters. It changes what we can imagine. And that change is sorely needed. Study after study shows that most of us are profoundly uncomfortable with women’s leadership, from the Harvard School of Education recent finding that students of all genders and races have the most confidence in white boys as student leaders, to the 2014 discovery by researchers at University of Illinois that hurricanes with female names tend to be more deadly, because people subconsciously associate female names with less power and impact. Even more troubling, recent research published in the journal Violence Against Women found a strong correlation between holding these kinds of retrograde attitudes toward women’s place in the world and condoning (and even perpetrating) sexual violence.
That’s not a connection that would surprise many women this election season. Just ask Roberta Lange, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, who was overwhelmed with threats aimed not just at her but also at her grandchildren, all for the crime of managing the state convention in a way Sanders supporters objected to. Or ask the numerous female journalists who’ve been on the receiving end of terrifying harassment and abuse when their reporting was less than flattering to Sanders or Trump.
They’re not alone. Last summer, as friends and colleagues started declaring for Hillary and specifically talking about their excitement about electing a woman president, I saw each and every one of them attacked—some quite publicly—as “vagina voters,” as though caring about gender and political leadership was dumb and invalid and something only a stupid girl would do. It was vicious enough that when I came out for Hillary, I deliberately de-emphasized gender in my endorsements, because there are plenty of other reasons to support her, and I didn’t want those to get lost in the yelling.
Honestly, being a woman who supports Hillary for any reason has been hard enough this cycle that I’m currently in four of the countless secret pro-Hillary groups that have proliferated on Facebook. Many thousands of people gather daily in these virtual rooms to commiserate and strategize about the sexism we face when we support Clinton, and share our excitement about her — her policies and politics, her superhuman tenacity, her legendary pantsuits, and yes, what she symbolizes. That we feel compelled to do most of this in private just illustrates how powerfully threatening that symbol is to the gender status quo. Which is exactly why it’s so important.
To those currently sputtering about genitalia, let me be clear: I’m not saying that representation is the only thing that matters. If Rabbi Priesand had been a terrible rabbi, I would hardly have learned the same lessons from her. And of course, that’s the double-bind of being such a visible, symbolic first. While Obama has been a symbol of racial hope and progress for untold millions, he’s also been criticized by some in the Black community and beyond for not doing enough to remediate structural racism, reform our immigration policy, or focus on any of a number of other priorities. No actual human will live up to the expectations we pin on our pioneers.
That’s not to say that an individual’s flaws can be ignored altogether in pursuit of an all-important “first.” You didn’t see me rallying behind Michele Bachmann in 2012, because her record of ridiculous and damaging politics includes supporting discredited and dangerous gay “conversion” therapy, forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies against their will, and defending the reputation of carbon dioxide. But Clinton isn’t Bachman. As President Obama said in endorsing her, there’s never been a more qualified Presidential candidate.
The other night, riding an emotional high after Clinton’s history-making speech, I asked my partner this difficult question: should we maybe consider putting a Clinton sticker on the car? Are we ready to risk months of worry about keying and slashed tires? I was startled to discover that I was nearly as nervous about displaying my support for a major party nominee on my bumper in 2016 as I had been about putting a rainbow sticker on it when I first came out.
I risked it then, and I’m doing it again now, for the same reason: Symbols are powerful. Visibility matters. We’ve decided to risk it because we want the next generation to grow up thinking nothing is special at all about women wielding power. Just imagine the new questions they’ll ask their parents. Imagine the answers.