BY CHARLOTTE ALTER
Winners get to write history. Losers, if they are lucky, get a ballad. Hillary Clinton made history for three decades as an advocate, a First Lady, a Senator, and a Secretary of State, but she will now be remembered as much for what she didn’t do as what she did. A female candidate in an election that didn’t hinge on gender after all, she became a symbol in a fight that was about much more than symbolism. She’s the woman who was almost President, she is what might have been and what will yet be.
In the autopsy of the doomed Clinton campaign, there is no shortage of fatal causes. Expectations certainly missed their target: the race between the first plausible female presidential candidate and a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” did not boil down to gender. In interviews across the country in the year leading up to the election, many voters suggested that shattering the glass ceiling wasn’t an urgent priority for them. Some took it as a given that a woman will be President one day, and it wasn’t worth electing someone they believed was the wrong woman just to show it could be done.
To some, other issues—economic anxiety, cultural values, a desire for change—mattered more. Of the 70% of voters who said Donald Trump’s treatment of women bothered them, 29% voted for him anyway. The female coalition was a mirage, splintered by party, race and education: Clinton won 54% of all women, but Trump won 88% of Republican women, 52% of white women and 61% of white women without a college degree. She walked away with a lead of more than 2.5 million votes, but not the White House.
In that final, conflicted tally, Clinton represents both the tantalizing possibility that a woman can be President and the obstacles that a woman candidate must overcome: complex hopes and hurdles woven into the same pantsuit. Whether you admire her or despise her, she has come closer to winning the presidency than any other woman in American history—twice. While Clinton’s campaign did not become a triumphant milestone in the fight for women’s equality, it is a stepping stone further than any to come before it. Which ensures that even if the 2016 election wasn’t ultimately about gender, her legacy surely will be.
Admired and Reviled
Long before she ever ran for office, Clinton built up a sturdy shield. Decades of attacks on her looks, her judgment, her marriage and her motivations left Clinton reflexively contained and guarded. But armor both insulates and obscures, and those self-protective traits may have led to some of her most damning mistakes, like the creation of a private email server and her fumbling rationale for it.
Even if the 2016 election wasn’t ultimately about gender, her legacy surely will be
For all of the “Lock her up” vitriol, Clinton has repeatedly been one of the most respected women in the world. Gallup named her the most admired woman in the country a record 20 times, including 14 times in a row. As a Senator from New York and then Secretary of State, her public approval rating hovered near 60%. But it plummeted when she sought higher office. What is it about Clinton that makes her more popular while doing a job than while auditioning for it?
The answer now means more to other women than to Clinton herself, who is all but certain to have run her last race. Because of Clinton, the next generation of women candidates can reasonably expect to win a debate, or a state primary, or a major party’s nomination, or the popular vote. Her discipline and tenacity will be their footholds; her caution and secrecy will be hazards to avoid. She has primed the American public to accept a woman candidate talking about issues like child care and paid family leave without sacrificing authority. By getting more votes than any other candidate, she has proven that millions of Americans will vote for a woman.
That brought hope to many young girls. “I thought, Oh when Hillary becomes President, girls will be treated better,” says Diana Zorek, 10, who was at Clinton’s election-night event in New York City. “Boys wouldn’t boss them around anymore.”
Some fellow female politicians, however, can’t help but see the race as a setback. “To me it feels like we have been sent back to square one,” says Kristin Boggs, a Democrat who won her first election—to the Ohio House of Representatives—the night Clinton lost the battle for the White House. Nine months pregnant with a daughter, Boggs says her thinking about the role of a candidate’s gender has shifted. “Would I sacrifice putting up a woman candidate if I don’t think she can win?” she says. “I’m not sure.”
A fellow Clinton diehard, Renata Ramsini, sees the outcome as evidence that the rules of the game are changing just as women get strong enough to compete. “Hillary did everything right, she checked all the boxes, and clearly that doesn’t really win,” says Ramsini, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “If a woman can’t beat this guy, then who can she beat?”
Clinton may be among the most admired women in the country—but she’s also among the most reviled. And there is no shortage of women, especially Republican women, who are relieved to finally hear the end of her saga. They are fatigued at having to explain why, despite their shared anatomy, they never supported her and never would. They weren’t inspired by her run or deflated by her loss, and they resent the implication that they should be. “I understand there was excitement about breaking the glass ceiling, but that didn’t really factor into my decision one way or the other,” says Ruth Malhotra, an anti-Trump Republican in Georgia who cast her ballot for third-party candidate Evan McMullin. “I’d like to see a woman President at some point, but I’d like to see someone who shared my values.”
Malhotra recalls how Barack Obama’s campaign spoke to voters in her conservative community in a way that Clinton’s never did. “There was a sense that we were atoning for our past,” she says. “With Hillary, I really didn’t get that sentiment from a lot of people.”
She wasn’t alone. Throughout the slog of the 2016 race, even loyal Democrats wished that Clinton could be something other than what she is—more dynamic, less entrenched, more relatable, less conflicted. But that wasn’t possible, of course, and her establishment identity made her particularly ill-suited for this moment. In September, Obama, who used the promise of hope and change to thwart Clinton’s first White House bid, lamented that she was unfairly burdened by her experience. “We always like the new, shiny thing—I benefited from that when I was a candidate,” he said in a stump speech for Clinton. “And we take for granted sometimes what is steady and true.”
What It Takes
The appeal of the political newcomer is particularly troublesome because it doesn’t reflect how women tend to reach positions of power. That path often tracks with Clinton’s: women who are careful and thorough, who are not too radical, who have the right connections, who do their homework and pay their dues. Indeed, leadership qualities that make men seem strong can make women seem inaccessible, as Sheryl Sandberg explained in Lean In. Men are promoted on potential, according to a 2011 McKinsey report, while women are promoted on experience. Sandberg cites internal research at Hewlett-Packard to suggest that men seek a promotion when they meet 60% of the prerequisites, while women wait until they have 100%. Clinton’s status as a former First Lady alienated voters wary of dynasty, though family ties are a common precursor of female ascendance: the first women to run India, Pakistan, Argentina and Indonesia were daughters or wives of former leaders.
“There’s that tension: you have to be perceived as qualified, but if the American public is looking for an outsider, how do women prove their qualifications?” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The idea that you could have a woman with Donald Trump’s résumé get elected President is unthinkable.” Carly Fiorina ran as a business-minded outsider—and never won a Republican primary. Elizabeth Warren has all the insurgent popularity of Bernie Sanders—but chose not to run. These failures and demurrals made Clinton’s way, tortured as it was, seem like the surest path.
But to women who viewed the campaign as an exercise in double standards, Clinton came up short because of Goldilocks-style expectations: she was called too established but not qualified enough, too liberal but not progressive enough, at once too aloof and too familiar. “We’ve seen that women are held to a different standard at every single level,” says Marcy Stech of Emily’s List, which raises money for pro-choice Democratic women candidates. “If it were easy to elect women Presidents, we would already have one.”
Activists like Stech fear that what they hoped would be a legacy of confidence may sour into one of hesitation. Yet there are already signs that the opposite is happening. Usually the period immediately after an election is a fundraising dry spell for Emily’s List, but this year they raised more than $500,000 after Nov. 8, mostly without solicitation. The Center for American Women and Politics says registrations for its annual workshop for aspiring women leaders are up 40-fold. “Now there’s a lot more anger that we had it, that it was our time, and that was taken,” says Ramsini. “We’re not going to play nice anymore, we’re not going to wait our turn.”
In her 1969 commencement address to her class at Wellesley College, Clinton called politics “the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” In this, she has succeeded. Like an American Moses, she was an imperfect prophet, leading women to the edge of the Promised Land. Now it’s up to another woman to enter it.