On eve of Hillary Clinton’s nomination, a historic moment is overshadowed

Julia Prodis Sulek,
East Bay Times

With all the high drama, name-calling and intraparty revolts defining this presidential campaign season, a long-awaited moment in American history is being largely overshadowed.

When the Democratic National Convention takes over this iconic U.S. city this week, Hillary Clinton will take her place as the first female presidential nominee of a major party. But as little attention as the barrier-breaking moment has received so far, it will not be lost on millions of pioneering women across the country, especially those in the Bay Area.

This is the place where San Jose in the 1970s became known as the feminist capital of the world, where two Bay Area women have held their U.S. Senate seats for decades and a San Francisco congresswoman and former stay-at-home mom became the third-most-powerful political leader in the country.

But when it comes to electing a female president of the United States, some feminists prefer not to make it an issue.

“We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to remind all the men we’re going to be running the country,” said Susie Wilson, 87, who has mentored women candidates since her days on the San Jose City Council four decades ago, when she and Janet Gray Hayes — the first woman mayor of a major U.S. city — would “caucus in the women’s restroom.”

“I’m not sure I want to celebrate it too much for fear of jinxing it,” she said. “If it becomes controversial that we’re turning this country over to women, that could backfire.”

In a phone interview, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who became the first female speaker of the House in January 2007, was careful not to draw too much attention to Clinton’s womanhood either, saying that Clinton “happens to be a woman, but the excitement is that she also happens to be the best for the job.”

At this week’s convention, the “best for the job” angle will also dominate, especially on Wednesday, when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will talk about her “experience and steadiness,” and during Thursday’s closing night, when Clinton — with her daughter, Chelsea, nearby — will lay out her vision for the future. The “happens to be a woman” part will creep into convention speeches earlier in the week, when Clinton’s “lifetime of fighting for children and families” will be featured in addresses by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and members of “Mothers of the Movement,” whose children have been killed by gun violence or while in police custody.

Unity will also be a theme when Bernie Sanders takes the stage on Monday to try to convince his passionate followers that the easiest way to stop Donald Trump is to elect Hillary Clinton.

Focusing on Clinton’s gender, however, has already been fraught with trouble. In February, when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said there was a “special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” — referring to female voters who were backing Sanders — she was quickly forced to backpedal. While women should help each other, Albright wrote at the time, she didn’t mean that women should support a candidate based solely on gender.

“While young women may not want to hear anything more from this aging feminist,” Albright said, “I feel it is important to speak to women coming of age at a time when a viable female presidential candidate, once inconceivable, is a reality.”

Despite the advances of women in politics, gender discrimination is still alive and well: Just spend five minutes on the internet to see it. Or just ask Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

“When I first became a lawyer at a law firm, I was told I would never make partner because all the women quit to have babies,” Schaaf said. “When I ran for mayor, many told me I was a horrible parent for doing this to my children — that in Oakland, California, in 2014. I can’t imagine anyone would ever say that to a man.”

It’s been nearly a century since women were given the right to vote in this country — and nearly a half-century since New York lawyer and social activist Bella Abzug in 1970 won her congressional seat with the campaign slogan, “A woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives.”

Today, women make up 19.4 percent of the U.S. House and 20 percent of the U.S. Senate. The percentages are much higher in the Bay Area, where a majority of local members of Congress — five of nine — are women: Pelosi and Reps. Jackie Speier, Anna Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren and Barbara Lee. But while the Bay Area is a welcoming place for female politicians, in Silicon Valley’s tech industry just 11 percent of executive positions are held by women.

The dearth in general of women in leadership roles is a concern throughout the business and political world — especially considering that college-educated women now far outnumber college-educated men — a trend that began in the late ‘70s.

Unfortunately, the education trend “has really failed to translate into women in leadership roles,” said Caroline Simard, director of research at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. “The lack of change at the top is implicit bias — and how it shows up in nearly every stage of a woman’s career.”

It’s driven by stereotypes and preconceived notions of who belongs in which profession, she said.

“If you think politician, the first image is probably the image of a white man because that’s who we’ve had,” Simard said. “This affects what young people see themselves doing and affects our own perception of who we see would be best in the job.”

You don’t need a scholar to tell you that, however. In just the past few months, Donald Trump has driven home that point himself — at least twice.

In suburban Philadelphia this spring, just miles from the convention site, Trump boasted about how presidential he looked in front of a crowd of 5,000.

“Do I look like a president? How handsome am I, right? How handsome?” Trump asked.

“Does Hillary look presidential?”

“No!” the crowd shouted back.

And according to The New York Times, just last week, Trump told his associates that his vice presidential pick, the silver-haired Mike Pence, looked the part and was straight out of “central casting.”

So where does that leave Hillary Clinton, a 68-year-old woman, partial to pantsuits, who sidelined her own political ambitions early on to marry Bill Clinton and follow his path to the presidency? She didn’t pursue her own political career until her husband was nearly out of office, becoming the first first lady to run for elected office when she won New York’s U.S. Senate seat. She then lost to Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary before becoming his secretary of state.

Women make up the majority of American voters and are key to winning the presidency. Although they didn’t help Clinton enough in 2008, the 10 million more women than men who voted in the general election that year were a key factor to Obama’s own historic victory.

Gender aside, Clinton has brought decades of political baggage to her campaign. She is often called “untrustworthy” by her critics, with delegates at the GOP convention chanting, “Lock her up,” arguing that she should be imprisoned for not preventing the Benghazi attack and using a private email server that could have compromised national security.

Still, like all aspiring women leaders, Clinton walks a well-documented “tightrope” between coming across as strong and appearing likable, said Simard of the Clayman Institute.

“One of the things that’s going on is a clear pattern of the likability penalty,” she said. “Women who exhibit the same kind of leadership behavior as men do, we don’t like that in women. It goes against our stereotype of how they’re supposed to behave.”

But Oakland social activist and Sanders supporter Margarita Lacabe, who was born in strife-torn Argentina, says women in leadership hold no special appeal to her. While the United States is behind when it comes to electing world leaders, Britain is now on its second female prime minister. And Argentina — after the death of Eva Peron — has been home to two women presidents, both wives of former presidents: Juan Peron’s third wife, Isabel Peron, in the 1970s and Cristina Kirchner in recent years.

“The first led to a military coup and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The second is someone I liked but is now under investigation for corruption,” said Lacabe, a Democratic convention delegate. “I would have liked the first American president to be someone who became president as a female because of her own effort and not her name.”

While the “likability penalty” may be hurting Clinton, her campaign is helping Emily’s List. The organization, founded in 1985 to help elect women who support abortion rights to office, has seen record-setting donations in the first six months of this year.

“The energy is not only in support of Hillary Clinton, but also because of the incredible contrast with Donald Trump,” said Jessica O’Connell, the group’s executive director. “We’re excited about her being one step closer to breaking the hardest glass ceiling in politics, but we’re equally excited about what she will bring to the issues.”

Schaaf says traditional feminine qualities of being a unifier instead of a polarizer should work in Clinton’s favor. “Honestly, I can’t imagine an election where those traits are needed more,” Schaaf said.

If Clinton wins in November, Pelosi’s own place in history would be forever altered.

But, Pelosi said, “I’m happy to relinquish the title of the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history. From the view of power I’ve had, I can’t imagine anyone more excited.”