PHILADELPHIA ― In 1968, Hillary Clinton, known at the time as Hillary Rodham, was taking in the excitement of the Republican National Convention in Miami. The young Republican had jumped at the chance to volunteer for Nelson Rockefeller’s last-minute effort to take the nomination from Richard Nixon and attend her first political convention.
“The Republican convention was my first inside look at big-time politics, and I found the week unreal and unsettling,” Clinton wrote in her 2003 memoir.
The 20-year-old Rodham probably never anticipated that 48 years later, she’d be at another political convention ― this time standing on the stage at the Democratic National Convention, making history as the first woman to ever receive a major party’s presidential nomination.
“Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president,” Clinton said Thursday night. “Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. I’m happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I’m happy for boys and men, too – because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone.”
“After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit,” she added. “So let’s keep going, until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have. But even more important than the history we make tonight, is the history we will write together in the years ahead”
Clinton presented the 2016 election as a moment of reckoning for America, a time when “powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart.”
“We have to decide whether we all will work together so we all can rise together,” she said. “Our country’s motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, we are one. Will we stay true to that motto? Well, we heard Donald Trump’s answer last week at his convention. He wants to divide us ― from the rest of the world, and from each other. “
“Don’t believe anyone who says, ‘I alone can fix it,’” she added. “Yes, those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us.”
Thursday night was an event that many women have been waiting for their whole lives, and there were plenty of tears ― both in the arena and from afar ― for the big, historic moment when Clinton came out to greet her daughter, Chelsea, onstage.
Suzanne Miller, 66, from Washington, D.C., said her 92-year-old mother in central Pennsylvania was a lifelong Republican. But this spring, she changed her party registration so that she could vote for Clinton.
“She’s thrilled, at 92, to be able to vote for a woman,” Miller said. “She never, ever thought she’d see this day. She is so excited and so thrilled that she changed her party after all those years.”
“This is looking at the fruits of my labor for 30 years, and feeling very proud,” said Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women and has become one of the most powerful political action committees since its start in 1985.
It’s been a long journey for Clinton. She first came to national attention as a student at Wellesley College in 1969, when her peers selected her to deliver the school’s first-ever student commencement speech. The student body president spoke for her generation, saying that although they weren’t yet in positions of power and leadership, they did have “that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest.”
Her comments were a direct rebuke of the speech Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) had delivered right before she took the stage, as he had argued against the effectiveness and need to protest. Clinton made The New York Times, The Washington Post and Life magazine. She began to get noticed, speaking around the country.
But she really began to draw attention as a political spouse ― albeit an untraditional one. Although Clinton now faces skepticism from the progressive wing of her party, she was often seen as a liberal feather-ruffler in the establishment. People didn’t like that she wanted to keep her maiden name while her husband was governor of Arkansas; it was later inconceivable to people that she would lead a health care task force as first lady.
Along the way ― from her days in Arkansas to her time as first lady, from her election to the U.S. Senate to her years as secretary of state ― Clinton has, in many ways, been the case study for sexism in politics. She has faced intense scrutiny over what kind of a woman she is: her hair styles, her clothes, the sound of her voice, whether she’s likable enough.
The atmosphere for women running for office has changed dramatically over the years, but they still face hurdles. Even during this election cycle, people have criticized Clinton by saying she needs to smile more and stop shouting ― despite the fact that her male challengers have never faced similar comments.
And it is those struggles ― and Clinton’s endless ability to overcome them ― that have bound her supporters to her. Many of the women who have shown up to Clinton rallies and to the convention in Philadelphia say they relate to her, and that they want to see her finally come out on top.
Vicki Saporta, 63, from Washington, D.C., was the first female organizer for the Teamsters union. She said she constantly struggled to be accepted by others in the movement, and that she was put through test after test after test ― only to find her male colleagues resentful when she succeeded.
“I understand what it’s like to pave the way for other women and how difficult it can be to be a first ― and how much extra you have to do in order to succeed,” Saporta said.
“She was the first person in the public eye, in a traditional role, in a traditional state, who didn’t say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to do this.’ She just did it,” said California delegate Andrea Villa, who was covered in pro-Hillary buttons and a T-shirt that read, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”
“I’m emotional and sentimental about this because I was the first woman mayor of Ville Platte, [Louisiana,] and here I am witnessing the first woman nominee who will eventually be president of the United States,” said Jennifer Vidrine, 57.
The fact that the first female nominee is also eminently qualified also makes these women proud. They stress this over and over, so that Clinton doesn’t get dismissed as just a “token” pick. After all, many of them have been accused of not being as qualified as their male counterparts ― and women still don’t make as much as men do for the same work.
“I was hoping she would finally get her turn,” said Roberta Goldman from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, who said she’s been a Clinton fan for a long time. “To me, she’s smarter than any president I’ve experienced, to be honest. ... She’s amazing! I don’t know if we’re going to get anybody else like that in a long time.”
“What’s so wonderful this time, for Hillary in particular ... is the most qualified. We are going to be in such capable hands. It’s going to be so inspiring for the rest of us to be more engaged,” said Cleveland resident Terri Hamilton Brown, 54, who said she never thought she’d see a black president, let alone a black president potentially succeeded by the nation’s first female president.
But Clinton’s long record of public service has also made her open to criticism that she’s part of the establishment ― something that’s especially dogging her this election, with the rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Her supporters consider this another damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moment: Would the country choose a woman to be president if she weren’t this qualified? And how do you get qualified without being part of the system for so many years?
The fact that the first female president would be part of a political family is also not surprising, since that’s how so many women broke barriers in politics.
Until the 1970s, one of the most common ways for a woman to enter politics was by following her husband. According to Pew Research Center, 90 women served in the House between 1916 and 1980; 34 of them were elected to fill their husband’s seat or replaced him on the ballot after he died. This country has, traditionally, been more comfortable with female politicians when they know their husbands.
Jan Cebula, a nun from Iowa who gave her age as “over 65,” sat in the very last row of the top section of the arena. The view wasn’t the best, but she said she’s overjoyed that “this is finally happening.”
“I’m a little bit older. So it wasn’t an aspiration to be president when we were growing up,” Cebula said. Asked what she would have said if someone had suggested a female president when she was young, she stared blankly for a few seconds. “You know, to be real honest with you, they wouldn’t have thought of it.”
Audrey Blondin, a Connecticut delegate, said she's been to four Democratic conventions and this one is "the most emotional, exciting, energizing" of all. Standing with a red, white and blue feather boa draped around her neck and "dump Trump" pins dangling from the rim of her oversized hat, Blondin recalled the glass ceilings she's hit over the years.
"I graduated from high school in 1971 and my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, went to the University of Notre Dame. I couldn't apply there because they didn't take women. I mean, to think about where I've come, from graduating from high school, to this…" she said, trailing off.
Blondin smiled and added, "We've come a long way, baby."
Laura Bassett and Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.