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June 11, 2008

What I Learned from Hillary


When my husband became a teacher, he took to asking me at dinner, "What did you learn today?" Our discussions led to my sharpened awareness of not just what was happening around me, but what was evolving inside me.

Now that Hillary Clinton has conceded defeat with grace and class to Barack Obama, I'm absorbing what I've learned by witnessing her fiercely determined, occasionally crass, always fascinating flat-out charge for the presidency.

Clinton proved to the world that she did not have to shut up or sit down just because powerful people told her to. Despite a blatant sexism that would never have been tolerated if it were racism directed at her opponent, she kept to her own agenda on her own timetable. She went the distance and finished the race she wanted to run.
Always a lightning rod for misogynists, the former first lady proved herself a formidable candidate who remains qualified to be president. That door is now open to any woman smart enough and tough enough to follow in her pumps.

Unfortunately, her candidacy reinforced an early lesson I learned first-hand: America is more sexist than racist. This campaign also reminded me that catty, mean girls grow up to be catty, mean women.

Female superdelegates proved particularly disloyal to one of their own as they cavalierly flipped themselves from Clinton, to whom they'd long been committed, over to Obama, this political season's sensation.

Several friends I'd assumed shared my commitment to dignified gender equality turned into harsh Clinton bashers for the flimsiest of reasons. One rejected her because she was disappointed Hillary didn't divorce her husband after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Another was infatuated with Obama's rhetoric, though she admitted she didn't know much about his political platform. A third resented being lumped into a baby boomer female stereotype identified with Clinton's life experience.

When a colleague of 30 years gleefully brandished her coffee table centerpiece -- a Hillary nutcracker with incisor-sharp teeth between its thighs -- I was embarrassed for this woman who'd claimed to be a lifelong feminist now sounding.

Every voter is entitled to his or her political preference; vulgar slurs don't belong in intelligent debate. Another lesson from Clinton's historic run is that women -- especially younger women reaping benefits won by Clinton's generation -- feel liberated enough to make choices not grounded in gender.

Suspending her campaign, she told supporters she entered the race because she had "an old-fashioned conviction that public service is about helping people solve their problems and live their dreams."

That sentiment echoes hopes of the untested Hillary Rodham who delivered Wellesley College's commencement address 40 years ago.

During a campaign in which nearly 18 million Americans voted for her, the 61-year-old Clinton found not just her voice, but a confidence in her own abilities that should free her from having to constantly prove she is worthy of playing with the big boys.

Watching her hit her stride over the past 16 months, my horizon opened to unimagined possibilities. Her success has galvanized millions of Americans, especially women over 40, to aspire to something beyond being somebody's wife, partner, mother, daughter, employee or boss.

As Clinton said in her June 7 speech:
"I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of. I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter's future. ... To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and mothers, and that women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal respect. Let us resolve and work toward achieving some very simple propositions: There are no acceptable limits, and there are no acceptable prejudices in the 21st century."

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2008 by The Women Syndicate

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