In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, Gallup asked Americans whether they would vote for a woman for president “if she were qualified in every other respect.”
Two out of three said no. The attitude was unchanged when Gallup asked again, in 1945, during World War II. By 1950, despite the number of women who had entered the workplace during wartime, a female president was still unacceptable to about half the population.
Even as recently as 1969, by which time the “qualified woman” question was routine in national surveys, the proportion ready for a female occupant of the Oval Office was only 53 percent.
We’ve come a long way, as they used to say in the old cigarette ads. Last year, when Gallup asked the question again, 92 percent of Americans said they could put a woman in the White House. This week, in a remarkable scene, Hillary Clinton became the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, announcing that “we just put the biggest crack in the glass ceiling yet.”
However you feel about Clinton politically, this is a historic moment. Honoring it, however, appears to be a struggle.
Republicans would like to bury the issue. Democrats seem unsure how much to make of the milestone. At the Democratic National Convention, some delegates waved “History” signs even as others openly yearned for a last-ditch comeback for Bernie Sanders. Older female delegates wept openly; younger millennials, ever well-mannered, applauded politely.
It almost doesn’t matter how overtly the subject is mentioned. Americans have been anticipating the “qualified woman” question since 2008, when Clinton lost her party’s nomination to another historic candidate, Barack Obama. Women have dominated the choice and placement of speakers at both conventions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, first lady Michelle Obama, the Mothers of the Movement, performers Sarah Silverman, Alicia Keys, Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham, America Ferrera and a host of other female faces have been front and center this week at the Democratic National Convention.
The Republicans – despite the absence of most of the party’s best-known politicians – cobbled together their own lineup, from the grieving mother of an American who died in Benghazi to Melania and Ivanka Trump.
Some may argue that this nomination is less a milestone than a liberal gimmick. Clinton has been in national politics for more than a generation, they may note, and her character, policies and credentials – and those of Donald Trump – should be the only issue.
True enough. But to skip to the part where Clinton is a candidate like any other gives short shrift to the progress that, bit by bit, has been made by the rest of us in this country.
A century ago, many women couldn’t vote in a presidential election. Seventy years ago, women could be forced to take a class just to serve on a jury.
Sixty years ago, a woman could be paid less than a man for the same job and it was perfectly legal. Fifty years ago, abortion was outlawed.
Forty years ago, organizations such as the Jaycees and Rotary Club could freely exclude women. Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as even unpaid family leave for new mothers.
Change isn’t change if it happens too quickly, but the choice on this ballot has been a long, hard time in the making.
It’s a mark of its importance that no matter who wins this 2016 election, generations of “qualified” young women will have choices that their mothers and grandmothers could only have dreamed of.
Love Hillary Clinton or hate her, vote for her or reject her, she helped make that possible. We should honor that.