The news that Hillary Clinton had secured the number of delegates necessary to lock down the Democratic nomination arrived with a thud.
Clinton was at a campaign event in California, and Bernie Sanders was, too, when The Associated Press declared that, according to its survey of superdelegates, history had been made.
Clinton addressed the news in a brief speech to supporters. “According to the news, we are on the brink of a historic, historic, unprecedented moment, but we still have work to do, don’t we?” she said Monday night. “We have six elections tomorrow, and we’re gonna fight hard for every single vote, especially right here in California.”
For its part, the Sanders campaign released a statement vowing to fight to the convention.
Nothing had really changed. Everyone seemed to resume the night as it had already been playing out.
I can’t imagine a more awkward, anti-climactic, and contentious acknowledgment that Hillary Clinton had shattered the glass ceiling of presidential politics. That the United States had done something unprecedented. I also can’t imagine one more fitting.
After a year of fierce debate about the direction of the Democratic Party, after countless think pieces about feminism and the 2016 election, after so much ambivalence and reverence and overt hostility toward these two candidates, of course this is how it happened.
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After Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993, Hillary Clinton agreed to an interview with The New York Times on the condition that it focus on her household responsibilities in the White House. This meant setting aside her career as a lawyer or her policy contributions during the campaign.
The piece offered a brief mention of her work on health care reform, but the bulk of the thing was about a shift in the White House kitchen to “emphasize American food rather than a French-style menu” and a smoking ban enacted to promote health and help preserve the antique furnishings.
Now when I think about the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy, and as of Monday the historic nature of her presumptive nomination, I do not know, or really care, whether Clinton is friendly in person or whether her approval ratings would improve if she would just publicly declare some hobbies already.
What I do think about is that Teddy Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton did not grow up understanding that history dictated that, if they were ever to have a place in the White House, it would be doing flower arrangements on behalf of the person they married.
Nor did these men likely imagine that they would one day have to apologize for comments they made about building a professional life instead of baking cookies. Or that they would be compelled to release a recipe for chocolate chip cookies (with oatmeal, shortening instead of butter) as an act of atonement.
This was 1993, a time when I was alive and walking around and having very emotional conversations about My Little Ponies with my girlfriends. This was what it meant to be a woman in the White House. These rules were like water and oxygen, the things I absorbed into my body before I was old enough to understand what they might mean.
Quantifying the impact of having a woman at the top of a major party ticket is difficult work, and feeling a certain way now that it’s happened is different from believing that the feminist revolution has finally arrived or that Clinton's candidacy will significantly improve the material conditions of women's lives.
But I can say a few things here without worrying that I’m overstating the significance of this moment.
I am glad that the coverage of this campaign, wherever it’s coming from, will have to contend with gender. That it will require new modes of writing and thinking.
I am glad that the buildup to the first woman is over, and that, hopefully, this barrier crossed, more women will run for president. More women will lose. More women will win.
I am glad that my aunt, who, at 80, has never moved away from the block she grew up on in Queens, will see a woman stand as the nominee for a major party. Even though, as a lifelong Republican, she believes that Hillary Clinton is terrible for America.
And I am glad that the group of teenage girls in the reporting class I teach at the library on Saturdays are seeing this happen. And that their view of the election, whether it’s positive or negative or indifferent, will have the name “Hillary" on their lips. Because before this it has been Williams and Walters and my god so many Georges and Johns.
I am glad that the messy disappointments, crushing cynicism, and wild optimism of presidential politics will now look just a little bit more like the country.
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Clinton’s candidacy is historic. But the historic nature of this election does not end with Clinton.
This is a year in which issues that were previously considered political pipe dreams—universal paid family leave, a minimum wage that tilts in the direction of a living wage, robust structural mechanisms to close the gender wage gap and hold police officers accountable when they kill unarmed black people—became central to the Democratic debate.
This is fucking unprecedented stuff.
So taken in those terms, the Democratic primary starts to look like a long stretch of a year in which two political strands played out, sometimes intersecting and sometimes not, but always pushing voters somewhere they hadn’t been before.
So here we are, the cycle disrupted in more ways than one. For the first but certainly not the last time.
There isn't a value judgment to "historic." It’s a thing we say when we are someplace we’ve never been before, which is where we are now.