On Thursday night, as the red, white, and blue balloons drop from the ceiling, as the crowd goes wild, and as an empowerment anthem like Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” (we’ve already heard Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” and “I Am Superwoman”) blasts from the speakers, Hillary Clinton will finally make the history she has been working toward for most of her adult life. She will accept the presidential nomination as the first female candidate of a major American party. In all likelihood, in January 2017, she will become the first woman president of the United States. During her years of campaigning and every day of the convention itself—history! history! history! screamed the signs during Meryl Streep’s Tuesday evening feminist stemwinder—the Clintonites have done everything short of releasing a crowd of Hillary lookalike skydivers over the convention floor to underscore her singular milestone achievement. “To every little girl who dreams big,” she tweeted on Tuesday evening, when she clinched the nomination, “Yes, you can be anything you want—even president. Tonight is for you. – H.”
Unfortunately for H, making history ain’t what it used to be. Even Barack Obama’s fiercest critics recognized the momentousness of the election of a black man to the Oval Office. By contrast, the first woman’s nomination has, apart from the convention extravaganza, elicited a general public meh. As veteran television news correspondent Lynn Sherr asked back in June: “How come I’m not feeling the tingle?”
One major reason for the tingle deficit is so widely known as to barely need mentioning: the character and persona of the candidate herself. The emails, the stench of quid pro quo bargaining barely masked by the Clinton Foundation, the suspicion that Hillary would not be giving an acceptance speech if her more talented politician-husband hadn’t already greased the skids for her, her inability to “connect” with the public—all have contributed to the former secretary of state’s famous “unlikeability” problem. She will probably enjoy a robust convention bounce; until then, it’s hard to imagine another Democrat having higher negatives, other than perhaps Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
But public apathy over Clinton’s history-making is rooted in something deeper than personality. It is an unintended consequence of the very identity politics Hillary would like to surf to victory. Identity politics asks that we view a candidate not as an individual but as a representative of a particular minority group. As the subset of groups has grown with immigration and the LGBT revolution, identity politics has been breeding historical firsts like a policy world’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This year, the Democrats might well have nominated the first Jewish president if they hadn’t instead chosen the would-be first woman president; the Republican field included a woman, two possible first Hispanic presidents, and a possible first Asian-American president. (According to Donald Trump, it also might have included a potential first Canadian president.) Closer to home, New York City recently elected the first Dominican congressman to replace the first black chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who, once upon a time, defeated the first black congressman from New York State.
Intersectionality—the combination of minority identities—multiplies the potential firsts. Eric Holder was the first African-American attorney general; now we have the first African-American woman attorney general (Loretta Lynch). Women are nothing new on the Supreme Court, but now the first Hispanic woman sits on the bench. Tammy Baldwin was the first “out” gay female to serve in the Wisconsin assembly before she became the first out gay female to be elected to Congress before becoming the first out gay female elected to the Senate. Recently, the New York Times Magazine profiled Mark Takano, the first openly gay person of color (or “Gaysian”) in Congress. Small wonder if the public has “first” fatigue.
Clinton’s presidential aspirations have been no secret since her husband left the West Wing, where she had already raised eyebrows by keeping an office and staff. In 1999, while still First Lady, she announced a run for the Senate from New York, a state where she had never lived and where she had only recently purchased a home. In 2003, a few years after winning her seat, she published her memoir, Living History. Keeping her powder dry and making new “friends” in the Senate, by 2007 she was raising millions for her anticipated presidential campaign.
Ironically, her plan to become the first woman president was programmed so far in advance, with so many carefully calibrated steps stretched out over decades, that she was outrun by the history she had hoped to make. Despite her image as a feminist trailblazer, Clinton arrives late to the party of women at the high levels of American politics. Nancy Kassebaum was elected to the Senate from Kansas in 1978. In 1992, she was joined by the first woman senators from Maryland, California, and North Dakota. They were part of “the Year of the Woman”—almost 25 years ago. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for the vice presidency in 1984—more than 30 years ago.
This past helps explain Clinton’s lukewarm—at best—reception among younger women. At least among the college-educated, this is a proudly feminist generation, practiced in the language of patriarchy, rape culture, male privilege, and wage and childcare gender gaps. Yet a USA Today/Rock the Vote survey showed that by this spring, 61 percent of young women preferred Bernie Sanders to an abysmal 30 percent going for Hillary. Twenty and thirtysomethings have grown up to a steady beat of gender firsts—first female IMF chair, first female Federal Reserve chair, first woman CEOs of Yahoo, Pepsi, and Hewlett-Packard, female prime ministers, female presidents of Harvard, and so on. At this point, the first woman president, especially one that seems so establishment and so, well, old, is not an especially compelling avatar of human progress.
Older feminists “scold” younger women for failing to appreciate Hillary’s moment. But it’s the old-timers who are misreading both history and the popular mood. Identity politics answers only one narrow set of challenges; our current whirlwind of economic, demographic, and global change presents us with a host of others. Earlier this week in Philadelphia, delegates waved signs about TPP, not “equal pay.” In the fevered politics of today, it’s not the first woman candidate but old white men—Trump and Sanders—who strike the public as the real change-makers. However wrong-headed that public is, they are a reminder that living history mocks the most carefully laid plans.
Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images