On Tuesday night, Mount Hope cemetery in Rochester, N.Y., was the unlikely site of joy and optimistic celebration. The final resting place of Susan B. Anthony, the famed suffragette, has long been a voter pilgrimage. This year, hours were extended as visitors, for the first time in history, could post an “I Voted” sticker for a female presidential nominee on her tombstone. People, most women wearing white, the hue of rebirth worn by suffragettes, lined for hours. Anthony wasn’t the only women’s rights pioneer so remembered; so were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and also Ida B. Wells, who bravely fought for black women’s inclusion in the electorate. It was Anthony who said, “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” A century and decade after her death, that hope remains unfulfilled as Hillary Clinton failed in her second quest to be the first female U.S. president. Or to employ the vulgar parlance of her opponent’s campaign: “The bitch was Trumped.”
The fact Clinton was widely viewed as one of, if not the, most qualified candidates to run for president would prove irrelevant in the face of Donald Trump’s ability to tap into the fear-based nativism, isolationism, protectionism, anti-immigration—a platform the KKK endorsed—creating seismic political shifts globally. “Crooked Hillary” was usefully marshalled into a living symbol of the Washington Establishment; her decades of political experience were reduced to a case study in pay-for-play access, even though she remains a scandal looking for a crime. The self-proclaimed billionaire real-estate tycoon and reality-TV boss sold himself more successfully as standing up for the little guy than Clinton, the long-time women’s rights advocate.
Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” paradoxically entails returning to the very past that created generations of feminist political activism. He promised to appoint a Supreme Court that will reverse Roe v. Wade and has spoken of punishing women who obtain abortions. Anthony must be spinning in her grave: “No man is good enough to govern any woman without her consent,” she said. Trump couldn’t have prevailed without the support of women, Hispanics, African Americans. Now we can look to Newt Gingrich, who infamously slut-shamed a woman who advocated that birth control be covered by insurance, being floated as potential secretary of state and Rudy Giuliani, who called Clinton too “stupid” to be president, as attorney general.
Rarely have campaigns been as polarized and ugly; a contest that revealed virulent misogyny, racism and extremism is alive and well in 2016 America. “No self-respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party who ignores her sex,” Anthony once said. Trump didn’t ignore women, of course. He treated them as objects there for his pleasure. Americans have chosen for their president a man who admitted to sexually assaulting women on tape, while denying sexual assault claims from more than a dozen women.
Better him, the public said, than an unlikeable woman, a “deeply flawed” woman, an “unpresidential” candidate, which is code for “not a man.” In an interview with the CBC last weekend, author Malcolm Gladwell spoke of sexism faced by Clinton: “People had a mental notion, a pre-existing mental notion of what a female candidate would look like and she doesn’t look like it,” he said. Sadly, the obvious follow-up wasn’t asked: “What does that candidate look like?” Elizabeth Warren? Nancy Pelosi? Or more fiction: Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary? Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep?
A textbook case of stealth sexism was seen in the September release of hacked emails from Colin Powell, secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, on DCLeaks.com, a website with reported ties to Russian intelligence. In them, Powell called Trump a “national disgrace.” Of Clinton, he said: “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect. A 70-year-old person [Clinton was then 68] with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, non-transformable, with a husband still dicking bimbos at home (according to the [New York Post]).”
It was a reminder that Clinton’s accomplishments have been so minimized as to be mind-boggling. It has only been 97 years since women won the right to vote in the U.S. and 52 years since that right was protected for black women in the Jim Crow South; another 22 years after that, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman on the presidential ticket as vice-presidential running mate to Walter Mondale in 1984. It would be 24 years before another woman, Sarah Palin, ran for a major party. Clinton faced violent threats, including repeated calls to “Lock her up,” a chant Trump promised to make reality should he be elected. It can’t help but put one in mind of another Anthony statement: “Resolved, that the women of this nation in 1876 have greater cause for discontent, rebellion and revolution than the men of 1776.” Despite epic advances achieved over the intervening century, many women in the United States of America can now say the same.