What It Was Like to See Hillary Clinton Make History

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Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Today, a woman became the Democratic nominee for president.

Today, Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee for president.

Today, a woman claimed a major-party nomination for the first time. Over the course of its 240-year history, over the course of 54 presidential elections, the United States had exclusively put forward middle-aged or older white men, most rich and born rich, as nominees for the presidency. Then, in 2008, came Barack Obama. And now here she comes.

Today, Hillary became the first woman to win a major-party nomination. She walked onto the stage to a deafening crowd, filled with elated delegates and more than one person — often a woman, often an older woman — in tears. Chelsea Clinton spoke about “my mother, my hero.” Just after, I searched the crowd to find sniffles and tears and faces full of awe.

Today, a woman aimed higher and got further than any other in American politics before her. The United States finally looks likely to join the five dozen or so countries that have already had a female head of government or state.

Today, Hillary aimed higher and got further than any other woman in politics before her. Come February, she might count among her peers Theresa May of Great Britain, Angela Merkel of Germany, and more than a dozen others — plus Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund, Nancy Pelosi in the House, and Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve. And she would have done it the hard way: It seems easier for women to come to power in parliamentary systems than in voting democracies, after all, structural sexism being what it is.

Today, a woman did something unusual, phenomenal. Though women have made progress in smashing the patriarchy in the United States, they remain woefully outnumbered in the halls of power, in boardrooms and governor’s mansions and presidential appointments. Right now, women lead just 22 of the Fortune 500 companies. They hold just 104 of 535 congressional seats.

Today, Hillary did something unusual, phenomenal. The ramifications of her success will be felt around the world and will change the course of politics in the United States. Already, diplomats talk about the “Hillary effect,” wherein foreign countries started to post more female diplomats to Washington after she became secretary of State. That “Hillary effect” looks likely to go big: The political consultant Amelia Showalter has found that electing a woman attorney general increases women’s legislative representation by nearly a percentage point four years later. For a woman senator, it is nearly three percentage points. Imagine what our statehouses and Congress might look like a campaign cycle from now.

Today, a woman shattered a new glass ceiling. Structural sexism still pervades society. Americans prefer to work for men rather than for women by a large margin. Studies dating back decades show that women in power are perceived to be “cold,” “bossy,” and “bitchy,” whereas men are “professional,” “assertive,” and “aggressive.” That puts women who are aggressive and assertive in things like salary or raise negotiations in an impossible bind. From top to bottom, beginning to end, it is harder, less common, more fraught for a woman to become a chief executive or a leader, no matter how much progress has been made.

Today, Hillary shattered a new glass ceiling. She did so in spite of extraordinary sexism aimed at her over the years, and this year. There was the overt sexism: “I think the only card she has is the women’s card — she’s got nothing else going,” her opponent Donald Trump said about her. “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the women’s card, and the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her, okay, and look how well I did with women tonight.” Then there is the constant, grating covert sexism: the accusations that she is too ambitious, too calculating, too bitchy, a harpy, a scold.

Today, a woman became a party leader. And when women become such political leaders, they tend to advocate for interests that are too often overlooked in politics — health care, pay equity, child care, disability issues, social services. “A majority of women lawmakers and their male colleagues report that women legislators alter the legislative process, making it more transparent and public,” concludes one Rutgers study. Women “provide increased access to the legislature for traditionally disadvantaged groups in American society, such as racial and ethnic minorities and the economically disadvantaged.”

Today, Hillary became the party leader. Her campaign has crafted an ambitious set of policy proposals designed to help Americans build better lives for their families. That includes filling in that last big missing piece of the safety net: making child care affordable for all families. It is “enormous” in its ambition, capping expenses at 10 percent of a household’s income. And it might be enormous in its effects, helping to keep women in the workforce and reducing the financial burden on low-income households.

Today, a woman took a step closer to the most powerful job in politics. In some respects, women are better politicians than men, if perhaps less heralded. Political scientists have found that “within the minority party, women are able to get their sponsored bills further through the legislative process,” and that they “sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do, and deliver about nine percent more funding to their districts.” The fact that they are working in a “predominantly male institution” might be a big part of the reason why.

Today, Hillary took a step closer to the most powerful job in politics. She did so while being thoroughly herself. “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” Clinton told my colleague Rebecca Traister. And it is true: She is not as galvanizing an orator as Obama, or as electrifying a presence as Bernie Sanders. But she is dogged, so dogged. Paraphrasing Max Weber, she has described politics as the “slow, hard boring of hard boards,” and it is something she is exceptional at.

Today, a woman finished the grueling primary process. Women are just as good as men at raising money and winning votes, research shows. But convincing women to run — convincing them that they are good enough, and could win, and are worthy of the job — tends to prove hard. Men do not need such convincing.

Today, Hillary finished the grueling primary process. She did so carrying the baggage of a 30-year life in politics, including her husband’s repeated scandals, decades of derogatory targeting by Republicans, and her public humiliation while First Lady in the White House. Those years made her wary and secretive, yes, and turned some of the public against her. Her approval rating is low, and it has been underwater since she started running for the White House. Yet, through all those years of merited scrutiny and unmerited abuse, Hillary never lost her ability to reach across the aisle or to make allies with those who were once her rivals. She never stopped being a public servant, and never gave up.

Today, a woman came closer to winning a presidential campaign. And winning the presidency is a process that rewards characteristically male attributes, as this campaign has shown. Bombast, working the bully pulpit, speaking to big crowds.

Today, Hillary came closer to winning a presidential campaign. She did so in a profoundly female fashion, and a fashion all her own. Listening to people. Working to win over her onetime rivals. Consolidating support. Finding consensus. She won the support of the vast majority of her colleagues in Democratic politics, along with a massive slate of business leaders, along with millions and millions and millions of Americans.

This week, a woman made history.

This week, Hillary made history.

Her campaigning has sometimes felt bloodless. The press has tended to be measured in its assessment of her, and sometimes downright mean. The convention has felt at times like a coronation. But in the Wells Fargo arena, as the DNC came to its end, there was joy, togetherness, excitement, elation, hope, change, love, and enthrallment. The glass ceiling crashed, and thousands and thousands of balloons showered down on Hillary as the crowd screamed and cried.

There was rapture. And it was because that woman is Hillary.