When she closed her first presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton made a concession speech in 2008 that had a sentence that has lingered in the mind of many Americans — and yes, probably more female ones. "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time," Clinton told a cheering crowd at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.
Well, she's not in the Oval Office yet, but Clinton is, as of AP's delegate count Monday night, the closest any woman in the United States has come to breaking that "highest, hardest glass ceiling." Now that Clinton is just about one (admittedly huge) vote away from snagging the keys to the White House (although Bernie Sanders' campaign maintains the primary race isn't over until July), do women need to redefine the proverbial glass ceiling, or set our sights on another landmark first?
To answer that question, it's worth considering the significance of Clinton's 2016 campaign and how it's decidedly different from her 2008 run, with far greater emphasis on the fact that she's a woman and how that has influenced her views and experiences in politics. As Dana Milbank observed of Clinton's campaign at the time in the Washington Post, "Through the Democratic primary race of 2008, she [Clinton] had played down the significance of being the first woman within reach of the presidency." In her book Big Girls Don't Cry , Rebecca Traister noted that Clinton had been encouraged by her campaign manager, Mark Penn, to avoid drawing drawing attention to the fact that she was a woman and, instead run a "gender-free" campaign.
At her second shot at the White House, Clinton has made the (rather obvious) fact that she's a woman running a historic campaign a prominent part of the race. Multiple times on the trail, she has offered a variation of this line:
People will say, 'Oh there she goes, she's playing the gender card.' And what I say to that is if talking about equal pay and paid leave and more opportunities for women and girls is playing the gender card, then deal me in.'
By running not only a successful campaign for the Democratic nomination but one where her sex wasn't downplayed, Clinton has made historic strides for women in politics. That in and of itself is a glass ceiling breaker of sorts, which is why I wonder how effective the concept of the glass ceiling is for the advancement of women.
First-time victories may hold tremendous inspirational value, but it's unclear how often they trickle down to affect the group that the ceiling breaker-represents. In fact, I worry that putting too much weight in a singular win may distract from more concrete and complicated goals. Our family leave policies won't magically be improved and TRAP laws restricting abortion access won't suddenly be erased from the book if Clinton becomes president — just like racism far from disappeared just because Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Although having a president who is African American after a long and bitter history of government-sanctioned racism is (or, certainly, should be) a major point of pride for Americans, it's difficult to measure how much it has reduced everyday expressions of racism. Moreover, many African American leaders have expressed disappointment that Obama hasn't done more for the community. Van Jones, a former Obama adviser, told New York magazine, "I understood the tightrope from the beginning. He’s the president of all people. But sometimes it felt like he was president of everyone except black people."
Moreover, I don't believe the huge significance of Clinton's campaign will suddenly vanish or be diminished if she doesn't win the whole commander-in-chief enchilada come November. (Not that such an outcome is likely based on the latest polls at the time of writing; a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between May 30 to June 3 shows Clinton with a double-digit lead over Donald Trump.) Her campaign has already served much of its symbolic value, showing a younger generation of boys and girls that women can run for president and be chosen to represent their parties. If Clinton loses to Trump in November, I honestly don't believe a massive cohort of young presidential hopefuls who happen to have vaginas will be deterred from running because they think the White House has a "No Girls Allowed" sign.
We don't need to redefine the glass ceiling for women with a new first to achieve. Rather, after relishing the historical significance of Clinton earning the nomination, we need to shift the focus to thinking about making the glass ceiling the norm. I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's response to being asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court: "My answer is when there are nine."
Women don't need a new glass ceiling; we need to hit the point where seeing a woman run for president is NBD.
Image: Bustle/Caroline Wurtzel