Beyoncé and Jay Z performed at Hillary Clinton’s big get-out-the-vote rally in Cleveland Friday night. But it was a few words that flashed on the screen during Beyoncé’s performance that made the most interesting statement of the night.
The words were a quote from Clinton ― in 1992, when she was still first lady of Arkansas and her husband, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, was first running for president. The quote came from a press gaggle, when a journalist asked about Clinton’s professional career.
Clinton’s response ― the one that flashed above the stage in Cleveland ― was: “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.”
The idea to show the quote came from Beyoncé, but the campaign certainly didn’t seem to mind, as tweets from staffers back at Clinton’s Brooklyn, New York, headquarters suggested:
To appreciate the significance of this, it helps to remember what a ruckus that quote caused at the time ― and what that ruckus said about the politics of gender back then. Hillary Clinton was a controversial figure in 1992, but not for the reasons she is today. She was controversial because she was a woman ― and, more specifically, a woman who had decided to have both a family and a career. As Rebecca Traister of New York magazine put it, Clinton was widely seen as “too radical, too feminist, too independent, too influential.”
The trouble had actually started years before ― with Bill Clinton’s first term as governor, when the Arkansas public had no idea what to make of Hillary Clinton, who not only had a law degree from Yale, but also seemed intent on getting involved with policy. She went by Hillary Rodham then, keeping her family’s name ― a point Bill Clinton’s opponent in his first gubernatorial race had made a campaign issue.
The political trouble only intensified when Bill Clinton ran for president. She had long since changed her name to “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” in order to win over those skittish Arkansas voters. But she was still a working mother ― an idea that many Americans continued to view with suspicion and antipathy. And as the presidential campaign wore on, her opponents used her professional life against her, making her out to be a radical who wanted to upend the American family.
In one sense, they were right. She really was part of a revolution. It was the feminist revolution ― the idea that women, finally, ought to have the same kinds of opportunities that men always had. And if Clinton’s comments about “baking cookies” came off as dismissive of at-home parents, that was in large part because mothers like her working outside the home were consistently treated so badly.
In 1992, history ended up repeating itself. Just as Hillary Clinton had changed her name for the sake of her husband’s political ambitions in Arkansas, she tried to make amends for the “baking cookies” comments in the presidential campaign ― most famously, by entering a bake-off, held by Family Circle magazine, with then first lady Barbara Bush. (Clinton’s recipe, for an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, won.)
Twenty-five years later, it would appear, Clinton no longer feels the need to apologize for her professional ambitions. And why should she? Women haven’t achieved equal footing with men, for sure, but those who enter the workforce don’t face the kind of public skepticism they did in the early 1990s.
By and large, the public has grown accustomed to the idea of women who work outside the home. And within a few days, they might even get to see one elected president.