Hillary Rodham, the future presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, delivers her speech during the 1969 commencement at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. (Wellesley College Archives/Reuters)
By Alyssa Rosenberg,
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about politics and culture on The Post’s Act Four blog.
Almost half a century ago, when Hillary Rodham became the first student to speak at a Wellesley College commencement, she dismissed, 1969-style, the tired cliche of politics as the art of the possible. “The challenge now,” Rodham said, channeling what students graduating this spring might describe as her inner Bernie Sanders, “is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”
How poignant that speech seems today. Hillary Rodham Clinton spent the decades that followed being tarred as a sellout when she compromised — and a dangerous radical when she didn’t. Making the impossible seem possible, and leveraging that possibility into reality, turned out to be far harder than 21-year-old Rodham imagined.
None of which is to say that anyone is required to like the path the eventual Clinton picked out through the minefields, sexist and otherwise, that she has navigated throughout her adult life. But consider the prices Clinton was asked to pay — and often did — for even the smallest gestures of independence, much less the “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living” she longed for on leaving Wellesley.
After all, scarcely a decade later, Clinton announced she would abandon her maiden name and identify as “Mrs. Bill Clinton” because polling suggested that going by Hillary Rodham cost her husband six percentage points when he ran for — and lost — reelection as governor of Arkansas. Having mildly mouthed off about her decision to pursue a career rather than stay home and host teas, Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign found herself suffering the indignity of submitting a cookie recipe to a women’s magazine, for a bake-off with Barbara Bush.
On the cusp of Clinton’s historic achievement, is it any surprise that even our fantasies of female politicians remain modest and constrained?
In Geena Davis’s short-lived series “Commander in Chief,” a woman becomes president — not through a hard-fought election, but because she is vice president when her predecessor dies. On NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie Knope (portrayed by Amy Poehler), a small-town Indiana Parks Department director with a crush on Joe Biden and dreams of elected office, paired raw ambition with endless rounds of gifts and thoughtful gestures. Knope’s niceness made her hunger acceptable.
More recently, HBO’s “Veep” edged the gender debate forward with Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a female president as calculating and flawed as the men who preceded her to the post. Meyer isn’t a great president or a feminist icon, just a woman who gets to behave terribly, err constantly, lust openly, express boredom with policy — and can still make it to the White House. Clinton may eventually claim the same office that Meyer occupies on TV, but it’s still unimaginable that she would act with the same license or impulse. That’s probably a good thing for the country, but it says a lot about the difference between what kind of behavior voters will tolerate from men and from women who seek higher office.
Clinton could have decided not to run again, waiting for another cohort of women less shaped — or tainted, depending on how you see it — by the difficult conditions of the past to claim the power Clinton worked so hard to earn. Maybe if the first woman to earn a major party’s nomination didn’t have to put her political career on hold for her husband’s, or didn’t have to grit her teeth through Blue Room decorations and sex scandals to get to this point, she would be more purely inspirational.
Yes, the first woman to plausibly bid for the presidency arrives without the corona of hope and change that graced Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Yet when the Associated Press called the nomination for Clinton, my breath caught in my throat. Other women may have hammered at the glass ceiling, but without Clinton, we would remain much further from electing a female president.
And when Clinton took the stage in Brooklyn on Tuesday night, she wasn’t pointing to men as inspiration, as she did in her commencement speech: “men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program.” Rather, she spoke after a video that placed her assertively in the tradition of impatient, even militant, women.
Clinton chose a path through establishment politics that has not always allowed her to speak in the same revolutionary terms as those suffragettes, civil rights activists and transgender advocates. But for one night, at least, she managed to suggest that they shared a desired destination: a political system where the terms of debate and the policies they produced would be different because women got to shape them.
As Hillary Rodham told her Wellesley audience, recognizing the “gap between expectation and realities . . . didn’t turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap.”
A commencement address — or a presidential nomination, for that matter — isn’t the end of that. Instead, the 47 years since her graduation feel like a very long beginning.