We millennials think we know Hillary Clinton. We don’t. As someone who was born two years into Bill Clinton’s first term, I am too young to remember Hillary Clinton’s work on the Children’s Defense Fund or her push for universal health care as First Lady, to follow her senate record or her time as Secretary of State. My fellow millennials and I are coming of age in a world where Hillary Clinton is a politician who was slammed by her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders as a “Washington insider.”
We have written off Hillary as a corrupt politician who isn’t a “real progressive.” The Hillary we know is one who is disliked for being “the establishment.” However, what we don’t realize is just how progressive that establishment insider Hillary Rodham Clinton really is; it’s her work on the inside that actually makes her such a renegade. So, a reintroduction is in order.
First and foremost, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a feminist before being a feminist was cool. In this era of the high-powered, equal pay for equal work, hyper feminist, we almost take our female presidential nominee for granted. In all the crazy distractions surrounding this monumental election, we millennials seem to overlook the fact that Hillary’s historic nomination is just the cherry on top of her lifelong trend of feminist trailblazing.
In stark contrast to today, where women outnumber men in college enrollment, in 1969, Hillary was one of just 27 women in her 235-person class at Yale Law School. She’s never been one to wait for men to take the lead; she was the one who introduced herself to Bill Clinton when he didn’t have the guts to make a move. And despite the barrage of mail she received addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Clinton,” she kept her last name. In 1978, when that decision became a tool for Bill’s political opponents, (yes, a real politicized issue during Bill’s gubernatorial race was Hillary’s name…) she conceded to adding Clinton, never losing Rodham. Upon receiving a stationery set emblazoned with the name “Hillary Clinton” she promptly sent it back in exchange for one including “Rodham.”
When badgered about her decision to remain in the workforce during her husband’s time as governor, she proudly defended herself; “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Not only did she do the unpopular thing by retaining her independence, she didn’t back down from a chance to defend herself. As First Lady of the United States, she received much scorn for leading the charge to give every American healthcare simply because it wasn’t in her job description.
Hillary was the empowered woman our feminist generation’s mothers implore us to be. Today, in a world where glass ceilings are opening up to clearer skies above, it’s easy to think that the Hillary’s actions were trivial. But in her time, Hillary was a something of a feminist hipster.
“No, no,” millennials will say, “If Hillary ever was progressive, she has sold out. Why should we believe she’s anything more than just a member of the political elite?” We millennials are disgruntled by what we see as a contradiction: progressivism can’t be sustained in traditional politics. Here’s the thing Hillary has known all along: “the system [can] be changed from within.” Hillary knows that her role in and around Pennsylvania Avenue is key to her ceiling shattering. She’s a modern day Mulan; if the world isn’t ready for a revolution, work your way inside and light a fire anyway.
Millennials, however, were disheartened by the stark contrast Hillary presented to her Democratic primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, who prided himself on avoiding the Washington power grid. What we overlook is the extra baggage weighing Hillary down in her quest to break through ceilings, a problem her male counterparts have never faced. As a woman who was called out simply for keeping her name, how far would Hillary have gotten with a nontraditional leftist counter to the established system? Not very. Just think of how progressive a woman - whose own mother was born the day women won the right to vote in America - has to be just to make her voice heard, let alone to deliver a speech that has real resonance. With her daily hairstyles as First Lady making headlines in the press, the last thing Hillary needed was to be seen as someone who didn’t play by the boy’s rules. But she wasn’t going to give up who she was, and she wasn’t going to give up her passion for improving the lives of families and children either. So, as a woman with real political acumen and a forward thinking agenda, she worked her way up into the political system. And the Hillary we have come to know now is one who made the system work for her so she could try to make the system work for everyone.
The inevitable counter to this argument is that sexism is an unfair scapegoat, and maybe it is. While Hilary never used it as one, it is an unavoidable vice crippling our system, and we can’t pretend it’s not a factor. Hillary knew the odds she was up against, but she never let it stop her. She braved that thorny, uphill path to the inside.
The Hillary Rodham Clinton we millennials have come to know is the one who is running for President of the United States in 2016. So while we millennials weren’t there to see it all, we should recognize and appreciate that Hillary is the product of a slew of generations that didn’t believe glass ceilings could ever be broken. She’s been working for our entire lives to take a million cracks at it anyway. As Hillary herself proclaims, she’s a “progressive who gets things done”; she has the vision, and she also has the knowhow to work from the inside until those million little cracks break through the ceiling once and for all.