Amid our national, intergenerational debate over whether it’s appropriate to vote for Hillary Clinton “because she’s a woman,” commentaries from Facebook postings to newspaper op-eds are notably lauding women who, they say, fought for equity in the 1970s and ’80s.
Yes, it was a fight then, although rarely acknowledged that way at the time. It’s true we believed we had to work two or three times harder to be judged competent in male-dominated workplaces. It’s true we see it that way for Clinton, too.
As a graduating senior in 1971, I sought an interview with the sole journalism employer – a San Diego-based news service – recruiting from my college campus that year. The chairman of our journalism department told me only male students were being considered. I applied anyway and learned directly from the recruiter that he would not hire a woman.
Madeleine Albright’s and Gloria Steinem’s clumsy efforts to push millennial women toward Clinton spotlight a fundamental question: Does Clinton merit support because she’s a woman who’s well-qualified?
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We’re told there’s a generational divide over the answer, and it’s no idle question. Openly discussing it strikes me as healthier than ignoring the historic nature of her campaign, as Clinton tended to do in 2008 until her compelling concession speech to Barack Obama that June.
Her initial reticence on the subject was understandable, even advisable. Geraldine Ferraro played up being the first woman on a major-party ticket from the moment she accepted her nomination as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984. Her focus on difference likely was unwise, too big a reach in the game of presidential politics. In contrast, a generation earlier, John F. Kennedy painstakingly assured Americans that electing him the first Catholic president would not mean getting a different kind of leader.
Americans put their women candidates in a double-bind. While voters dislike strong masculine traits in female candidates, they don’t want women politicians to be too feminine, either, since those stereotypically submissive qualities run counter to our cultural typecasts of tough leadership.
Clinton, impeccably coiffed and made up in her appearances along the campaign trail, is adept at negotiating the bind despite the inevitable stories about her clothing, voice and other gender-related attributes. Now we’re navigating a line between acknowledging she is a strong, ready feminist without making too much of her being, you know, the first woman.
Lyndon Johnson was talking about African Americans when he famously said it was unfair to expect a man to compete on the same starting line with everyone else if he had been hobbled by chains in the past. Few remember it was Richard Nixon’s Department of Labor that made good on LBJ’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 by imposing affirmative action on federal contractors, pushing them to consciously hire and promote women and underrepresented minorities.
Affirmative action gave some of us a boost in the good fight. In 1973, the manager of a Midwestern bureau for United Press International told me: “We’re under pressure to hire a woman. You’re our only woman applicant. The job is yours if you want it.” I did.
Other employers followed suit in those years, and California put affirmative action on its books under Gov. Ronald Reagan. Policies that moved more women and minorities into public and private jobs helped turn the tide in the second-wave women’s movement.
California voters rescinded affirmative action in public employment and education in 1996. Today many millennials no doubt believe the fight is won and done.
We older women know the chance to elect a woman president may come only once in a lifetime, if ever. Experience has taught us this: If a man and a woman are both qualified for a “man’s job,” the world cannot change unless it goes to the woman.
Rebecca LaVally is a former Sacramento bureau manager for United Press International and Gannett News Service. She teaches persuasion at Sacramento State and is a co-author of the book “Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California.”