Three years ago, on July 27, 2016, my daughter, who was 6-years-old at the time, and I stayed up to watch Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Friends and acquaintances alike texted me or posted pictures of their own daughters watching Clinton’s acceptance speech. Some of those folks were die-hard Clinton supporters. Others had long kept their politics to themselves. Some I knew leaned conservative, but they were not so partisan that they couldn’t appreciate the historic moment of it all.
I realize now that we all assumed — whether we were thrilled or skeptical, or even disengaged altogether — that Hillary Clinton would win.
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We assumed she would win because of the building momentum during the Democratic Convention made it seem like history was on her side. Epic speech after speech from Michelle Obama, President Obama, President Bill Clinton, and her daughter, Chelsea, made victory seem inevitable. All conventions try to generate that kind of propulsion, but doing so is far from easy. I watched the Republican Convention in 2016 as well, and it seemed uncharacteristically dispirited and disorganized. The contrast only deepened our assumption that come November, one full century after women won the right to vote in this country, the ultimate glass ceiling would be shattered.
But it is still there, inexplicably intact and seemingly bulletproof. And we are left to pick up the pieces, not of broken glass, but of our own crushed expectations.
Now, three years later, there are several accomplished and talented female candidates poised to breakthrough in 2020. We owe it to them to interrogate our past assumptions and the actions that they produced. Assumptions, after all, reflect our beliefs about the world we live in and how it works.
With Hillary Clinton, we assumed she would win because of the depth of her experience from decades spent in public service at every level and in every branch of government.
We assumed she would win because her approval ratings as secretary of state from 2009-2013 hovered atop the 60 percent mark and hit 69 percent in a Washington Post poll as she left that position.
We assumed she would win because she had played the long game her entire adult life. In 2008, she formally ended her campaign a mere four days after Obama secured the 2,118 delegates required to win the Democratic Party nomination, and in her speech she fully endorsed Obama. Two weeks after the general election, she accepted Obama’s offer to serve in his administration, giving up her Senate seat. She bowed out, found a way to contribute to the greater good and waited for another turn.
We assumed that she would win, because she has weathered seemingly impossible political storms and endured vile scrutiny for decades. She has been berated for her ambition, her deep grasp of policy, her penchant for problem-solving, her hair, her pantsuits, her laugh, her defensiveness, her name, her choices, her husband’s choices, her age, her gender, her existence.
We assumed she would win because when her second turn came, she was running against a man who was not a Republican, who insulted all of the other Republican candidates, whose company had filed for bankruptcy multiple times, who had two divorces play out in the tabloids, who had been the subject of countless lawsuits, who had been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault repeatedly, who had no experience in the public sector and who promoted a racist conspiracy to discredit Obama, to whom the majority of Americans still gave favorable marks in the weeks leading up to the general election.
We assumed she would win because a contest of resumés, of lives, of accomplishments, was a blowout every time. So much so that even the handicap of “dis-likability” that we hang on competent women would not bridge the chasm.
Because of this assumption, too many downplayed the role that sexism in all of its manifestations would play in the election.
Because of this assumption, various media outlets aired Trump’s rallies in their entirety. Shocking rhetoric makes for good political theater and even better ratings. And it was harmless because she was going to win anyway, right?
Before the election, when FBI officials opened an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, they restricted its scope (for example, they did not interview key members of the campaign staff). They also kept the circle of people who knew about it extremely small, believing that a leak would bring accusations of partisanship. Better to limit their efforts and wait it out. Clinton was going to win anyway.
Inconsistently, FBI Director James Comey publicly announced that he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Perhaps he reasoned that if he kept that investigation secret, and if it came out after Clinton won, he would surely face accusations that his silence had affected the outcome of the election. The action was inconsistent. The assumption of her victory was the same.
So many Democrats, independent-leaning Democratic, and progressives voted third party. They assumed she would win, but they did not want to pull the trigger for her.
We assumed she would win, but here is the kicker: No woman has ever won. No woman’s name had ever appeared on the top of the ticket on our ballots representing one of the two major parties. Before 2016, only one woman has ever even come close to winning her party’s nomination. That was Hillary Clinton, too.
Several of the women who called me the day after the election had not voted or had voted third party. They had assumed she would win. Their regret and disbelief was palpable, and their rage both at themselves and at the fact that we cannot assume that an exceedingly hard-working, prepared and experienced woman will get the job over a man with no such traits — a man who, in fact, embodies the gauntlet through which women must pass to reach the highest levels of success. They had all been that woman at some point in their lives. They had organized and planned and watched a man get the credit.
But this is the part that really keeps me up at night:
Imagine the mental and emotional fortitude it takes to overcome a lifetime of vilification, harassment, dislike, and distrust to the point that you are the presumptive winner of a race that no woman has ever even gotten to run.
Then imagine that our assumption that you would win — based on the seemingly impossible course you cut through that gauntlet — made us act in ways that ensured you didn’t.
The tragic irony is now folks are assuming a woman cannot win at all.
So once again, we have to thread the needle. But the gauntlet we face this time is one of our own making. We cannot assume a woman will win, and therefore be complacent; and we cannot assume that she won’t, and, in doing so, deny her the chance.
Angie Maxwell is the director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas and the co-author of “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” out this week from Oxford University Press.