On the Sunday morning before Election Day, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman ever to be nominated by a major party for the American presidency, gave a sermon at the Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia. Her voice hoarse after days of multistate campaigning, Clinton sounded exhausted but happy to be there. Even at the bitter end of a nearly two-year marathon campaign, she could still get energized by speaking at a black church on a Sunday.
There was a feeling of confidence among many in Clinton’s campaign that weekend. They were spending a lot of time in Philadelphia, where the streets were overrun by canvassers who’d poured into the city to get out the vote. Polls had begun to show Clinton recovering from the dip she’d taken after FBI director James Comey’s letter re-embroiled her in the email morass. It looked at that moment, in and out of the campaign, like she was going to be the first female president of the United States.
Clinton preached to the congregation about the Founding Fathers — but not in the way that most politicians, in this era of right-wing deification of the country’s forebears, would invoke them two days before a presidential election. “Our Founders said all men are created equal,” Clinton said. “[But] they left out African-Americans. They left out women. They left out a lot of us.”
The congregation stood, hands in the air, calling back to her. “Our founders said our democracy should be shaped by ‘We the People,’ but we didn’t get to vote, did we? And even when the Constitution was amended to allow African-Americans to vote, it was still only men. And then, finally, when it was amended to allow women to vote, it took decades before that became a reality.”
Clinton’s point was clear: Her historic candidacy, coming on the heels of the election and reelection of our first black president, offered another crucial revision to the country’s founding assumptions, another inversion of its exclusions. And if she were to win, it would be thanks to a coalition of voters of color and women, exactly the people who had had to fight for centuries for the franchise.
The next night, Clinton stood alongside Barack and Michelle Obama before a crowd of 33,000 people outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the spot where the architects of the nation had endowed its citizens with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — as they built their new country on the backs of enslaved African-Americans and subsidiary women. Clinton and the Obamas were taking an audacious risk in presenting themselves as united in a mission to broaden America’s notions of what leadership could look like, of what the power of expanded enfranchisement could mean for the kinds of people from whom it was withheld for so long.
But little more than 24 hours after these three historic figures made their case for doing more work to perfect our imperfect union, it was clear that half of the country would prefer to return to the Founders’ original vision, with people of color and women on the margins and white men restored to their place at the center. The enormity of the upset came at the end of what had already been a traumatic election for the women and immigrants and people of color to whom Clinton was trying to appeal, and who had spent months being derided, threatened, groped, caricatured, insulted, and humiliated by Donald Trump and his supporters.
It wasn’t simply that the imagined coalition did not, in the end, cohere — though it did not. It was also that the very specter of it, the threat that power could be wrested from those Americans who have traditionally enjoyed more than their share, had created a spasm of resentment and revulsion that no pollster had really been able to track. It wasn’t just that white Americans voted Republican, which they usually do. It’s that they chose a uniquely unqualified candidate who openly sold himself on promises of resistance to and revenge on the women and people of color who were poised to exert a historic degree of power.
Monday-morning quarterbacks now litter the field, pointing out the one outlier poll, or their generalized conviction that Hillary was a terrible candidate, or that Trump’s celebrity helped him, or that Clinton didn’t visit Wisconsin enough, and that any one of these things makes Tuesday’s outcome perfectly comprehensible.
But the argument that if Clinton had taken a firmer stand on trade, or spent more time in Green Bay, it would have mitigated the fact that 48 percent of voters chose a self-confessed sexual predator who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, attempts to apply reason where there is only visceral incongruity. Clinton was surely a flawed candidate; but Trump was a catastrophically awful one. The disparity is enough to make one wonder if she ever really had a chance.
We are a female-majority country that had never before nominated, much less elected, a woman president, and in which the administration of our first black president has been unapologetically delegitimized by members of his opposing party, led by our new president-elect. The resounding, surprising, data-defying victory of a man who ran on open racism and misogyny, and was voted into office by 63 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women voters, was made possible by voters threatened by the increased influence of women and people of color.
Or, I should say, half of those who voted; though the tallies won’t be final for months, it appears that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But the predominantly white, predominantly male 48 percent of voters who determined the electoral tally rejected her historic proposition, and the imagined coalition of Americans who might have supported it did not turn out — and in some states were successfully suppressed. The heartbreak of this election for Clinton supporters is not just the loss of a tough, smart, and inspiring first female president — though that is wrenching — but also the loss of the idea that this country was so very close to being better, more inclusive, more just, and more representative.
At a gathering of women’s leaders and door-knockers hosted by EMILY’s List in Philadelphia on the Friday before the election, the mood had been raucous. Tense and terrified, but excited. Clinton’s state director, Corey Dukes, who oversaw her win in Pennsylvania during the primary, took the stage: “About a hundred hours from now, Hillary Rodham Clinton is gonna be named the 45th president of the United States.”
“Oh, shit!” yelled a woman in the crowd with genuine shock. Was it just 100 hours? After more than 100 years?
The fact that this country has never managed to elect a woman to the highest office in the land is one of the most embarrassingly backward, un-American facts about our purportedly representative democracy. So internalized is the normalcy of white-male presidential power that we barely notice that the factors in play in 2016, from groping controversies to voter suppression, are not quirks of this year’s cycle but extensions of the structural obstacles to political, economic, and cultural equality that have impeded women and people of color throughout our history.
It’s worth noting that more than 200 women have tried, mostly in vain, to make chinks in this hardest of glass ceilings, starting with Victoria Woodhull, a stockbroker and occultist who ran for president in 1872, nearly half a century before the passage of the 19th Amendment. A hundred years later, Shirley Chisholm made her historic run, which ended with negotiations over her earned delegates and a speech at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami. Chisholm compared her campaign to Catholic Al Smith’s nomination in 1928, which she said paved the way for John F. Kennedy’s successful run in 1960. “What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male,” she said.
Chisholm did not linger on the fact that 32 years separated Smith’s candidacy and Kennedy’s election. Her own run would precede Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign and Geraldine Ferraro’s vice-presidential nomination by 12 years, Barack Obama’s presidency and Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential nomination by 36 years, and Hillary Clinton’s nomination by 44 years.
When Clinton conceded on Wednesday morning, her most gutting line, a callback to her 2008 concession speech, was about the project being once again stalled. “I know that we still have not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said. “But someday someone will.” That someday-someone construction left so much space and uncertainty ahead of us. At what became the dirge at the Javits Center on Election Night, I embraced a 30-something friend who has spent her career working to elect Democratic women to office. Throughout the election season, when things seemed particularly grim for Clinton, she would joke, “It’ll be easier when we elect our fourth woman president.” When I hugged this friend on Tuesday night, we exchanged that line, smiling wanly. Then we were quiet. We won’t live to see that. Who knows if we’ll live to see the first.
There’s a rich history of women crying about politics. Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary about Chisholm’s 1972 run, ends with Chisholm saying through tears, “The only thing I continue to regret of course is that we didn’t have the moolah.” At that same convention, Nora Ephron famously reported on Gloria Steinem, weeping on a Miami street about how George McGovern had betrayed the women’s caucus. “I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends,” Steinem bites out. In 1988, Colorado representative Patricia Schroeder tried to mount a presidential campaign but, like Chisholm before her, was unable to raise the money. During her speech, announcing that she would not be running, she cried, and the taunting and jeering she faced as a result of having broken down were ironed onto my 12-year-old brain. In 2008, Hillary Clinton famously got choked up the day before the New Hampshire primary, a race she was predicted to lose to Barack Obama by ten points. In one of that election’s great upsets, women came out to vote for her in droves, putting her back in contention and setting up what would become her epic primary battle against Obama. Many in the media argued that women were responding to her vulnerability, her show of weakness and emotion, to some sort of Bat signal of soggy sisterhood. I thought at the time that what they were responding to was something else. Clinton’s show of emotion came during a week in which the media had dug her a premature grave, in which men had held up an IRON MY SHIRT sign at a rally, in which Chris Matthews had actually pinched her cheek. Tears, for women, only sometimes express sadness and vulnerability. Just as often, they signal rage.
In a way, anger is what got us even this far. Perhaps the most crucial turning point for women in politics came in 1991, when Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate judiciary panel about her sexual harassment at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (who would go on to gut the Voting Rights Act, enabling the disenfranchisement of so many voters in North Carolina last week). Watching a black woman being interrogated on national television by a group of exclusively white men suddenly made America’s representational inequities glaringly obvious. “Women were furious,” Pat Schroeder has recalled.
Ellen Malcolm, who six years earlier had founded EMILY’s List, a fund-raising organization built to address Chisholm’s “moolah” problem, told me that the Anita Hill hearings were when things started to really pick up for her organization. “I knew everything was going to change when my phone started ringing that weekend,” says Malcolm. By the following year, EMILY’s List had grown to 23,000 members and raised more than $10 million. The group had a huge role in electing four Democratic women to the Senate: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein from California, plus Carol Moseley Braun — who until last week, when Kamala Harris won in California, was the only black woman ever elected to the United States Senate — and Patty Murray, who has explicitly said that her motivation to run came from anger after watching the Hill hearings. Twenty new Democratic women were elected to Congress that year, and 1992 was dubbed “the Year of the Woman.” Pat Schroeder has recalled that afterward, when women’s representation in the Senate was still just 7 percent and in the House was just over 10 percent, one of the Senate’s “old bulls” said to her, “I really hope you’re happy. This is beginning to look like a shopping mall.”
Of course, 1992 was also the year that Hillary Clinton first campaigned for the White House, as the (literally) better half of a political couple. “There’s jokes about it, but the person who was better prepared, in terms of temperament, to be president in 1992 was Hillary,” says former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, who ran against Bill in the Democratic primary that year. “And I was running against them. He would have lost the primary if not for her … her strength of character, her presentation to the audience. People said, ‘Okay, he’s got his own problems, but she shored him up.’ ” The irony, Kerrey continues, is that now, many of Hillary’s challenges stem from the fact that she’s Bill Clinton’s wife. “The resentment that gets thrown up at Hillary — ‘How dare you, all you are is Bill Clinton’s wife!’ — but I’ll repeat it: He’s not president without her, and if you believe in God, and He’d sat down with them in the 1970s and you asked Him to pick who should run for office, He’d say, ‘I pick her.’ ”
Spending eight years in the White House made Hillary a part of the Democratic firmament, a celebrity who rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful. Which of course helped her when she embarked on her own political career, becoming the first woman senator from the State of New York. By the time she made her first bid for the White House in 2008, she — unlike all the women who had preceded her in presidential bids — had both the money and support of the party Establishment. Her decision to go work for her former rival Barack Obama further ensconced her in the Democratic Party’s highest echelons, which led to the sense of her 2016 run as inevitable, unstoppable.
It is a piteous irony that in finding a way past the specific hurdles long set before women with presidential ambitions — fund-raising and the support of a major party — Hillary Clinton also offered up to her opponents, on the left and the right, the ammunition to undercut the historic nature of her candidacy. The very fact that she had close relationships with big donors and garnered the support of major political institutions made her part of the political elite, vulnerable to the anti-Establishment rhetoric of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. It also kept her from being understood or celebrated as the historic outsider that, as a member of a gender historically denied access to executive power, she was. In debates, when attacked as a member of the corrupt global oligarchy, Clinton would bleat about being a woman, a grandmother, different from literally everyone else ever to have been on a general-election presidential-debate stage, yet her claims never really landed. Perhaps it is a remarkable twist of fate that the outsider candidate was too much of an insider for the election she ran in, or perhaps part of today’s fury at insider institutions stems from a resentment that women like Hillary Clinton can infiltrate them. Either way, in figuring out how a woman might win, she lost.
In the final stretch of her general-election campaign, Hillary Clinton did become discernible as a woman — thanks, in large part, to Donald Trump. When he dismissed her as a “nasty woman,” when he said that she lacked stamina, when he said she didn’t look presidential, when he said that she’d walked in front of him at a debate and that he “wasn’t impressed.” When he stood menacingly behind her at the second debate, radiating his desire to punish her, spitting out his plan to imprison her should he be elected, attempting to humiliate her with women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. Suddenly, millions of American women remembered that no matter her wealth, or her immersion in the political ruling class, in the end, she was being treated like a woman — a woman who had dared to challenge and embarrass an angry man. A lot of women could relate.
Then there was the infamous pussy-grabbing tape. Bob Kerrey notes, with the surprise felt by many men, how “that tape of Trump reminded us of the way we used to be, and let us know that it’s still going on! Now it’s more likely to be condemned, as opposed to being rewarded, because it wasn’t that long ago that it was rewarded. And it’s the reason we haven’t had a woman president.”
Women, many of them re-traumatized by Trump’s boasting about grabbing genitals, started telling their stories about groping and sexual assault to each other and to the men in their lives. “Pussy Grabs Back” became a rallying cry and “nasty woman” was appropriated as a term of art for women who stood up for themselves.
The story of women in America is closely intertwined with the story of the country’s other structurally disadvantaged groups, even if those groups have sometimes fought with each other over a too-small piece of the pie. But in this election cycle, faced with a candidate spouting sexism and racism along with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic tirades, those groups, and their symbolic representatives, began to step up to flank Clinton. People who had reasons to distrust Hillary Clinton, especially African-Americans who were angry about the long-term repercussions of Bill Clinton’s crime bill, began to get over them to try to help Clinton win a historic presidency. There was Michelle Obama, against whose husband Hillary Clinton had so bitterly fought in 2008, arriving to give clear, heart-wrenching voice to women’s anger at the culture of sexual assault. There was Elizabeth Warren, in defiance of the narrative about her chilly relationship with Clinton, making the impassioned case for progressive economic reform that Clinton herself had a hard time making, in part because her husband’s welfare-reform legislation had exacerbated the class divide. Clinton herself spoke more openly about her own advantages, about systemic racism, about the biases and resentments that made Michelle Obama’s time as First Lady more fraught than hers.
This coalition-building was not just an illusion produced by a few high-wattage appearances. A poll released by the nonpartisan African-American Research Collaborative the Friday before Election Day found that while black voters were most motivated by jobs, 89 percent of respondents also were invested in comprehensive immigration reform, and support for same-sex marriage had risen 11 points since 2012 to 61 percent. Issues that used to divide marginalized populations — recall the passage of Prop 8 in 2008, thanks in part to a lack of support for gay rights among the African-American voters who turned out for Obama* — seemed to be, slowly but righteously, becoming common cause. The prospect of a truly intersectional Democratic movement seemed possible — not just possible but key to electing the first woman president, a woman who would not only shore up the Supreme Court but who was running on promises of comprehensive immigration reform, paid family leave, subsidized child care, a higher minimum wage, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and criminal-justice reform, all of which would of course have trouble getting past an obstructionist Congress, but nonetheless composed a blueprint for the future, an interlocking set of fixes that might begin to address structural barriers to equality. A more integrated progressive future was a glimmer in the eye of our sitting president, his would-be successor, and the coalition of voters that appeared to be forming behind her.
Which is why that last rally in Philadelphia was so stirring. It was chilly, and clear, and the most silent political rally I had ever attended. The intensity, the held breath, the reverence for the possibility that the politicians in front of us were standing in for the increased engagement and participation of many groups of Americans who spent centuries disenfranchised but now felt they had the power to elect presidents. This was a crowd praying that the Obama presidency had not been an exception to America’s white-male rule, but instead heralded an era in which diverse participation, leadership, and representation in government was the new rule.
The heartbreaking conclusion, of course, was that the hopeful, future-looking coalition would break down in the most depressing of ways: 53 percent of white women voters chose Donald Trump, a man who has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual assault or harassment, rather than Hillary Clinton, who not only is a woman but ran on a raft of policies that would better support women. This compared to 93 percent of black women voters and 80 percent of black men, who managed to move past their racial anxieties about Hillary Clinton to support her. Why did more than half of white women voters choose a man who ranks women on a scale of one to ten and boasts about assaulting them? It is both the most surprising thing about this election and the least. White women voters have consistently marked their ballots Republican since the 1970s: 56 percent of them voted for Romney over Obama in 2012, 53 percent for McCain over Obama in 2008, 55 percent for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. The last time more white women voted for the Democratic candidate was actually 1996, for Bill Clinton.
One would have thought this time would be different: female candidate, openly misogynist opponent, not to mention the rise of the feminist internet and the amplification effect of social media. It wasn’t. Perhaps these women felt that the advantages afforded them by their race would protect them during a Trump presidency. Perhaps they voted based on internalized misogyny, the preference for affiliation with people they still see, or want to see, as America’s most powerful and ratifying population: white men. Cut the numbers another way, and you’ll find that married women were more likely to vote for Trump than unmarried women by a startling margin — also perhaps due to the perceived advantages conferred by belonging to a traditional institution. Whatever their reasons, in voting for Trump, in not standing alongside the women and men who will be deported and discriminated against and whose sons and daughters will continue to be imprisoned and killed at higher rates than their sons and daughters, white women have — at least temporarily — shattered not a glass ceiling but the tenuous, hopeful coalition that had formed around Clinton and the Obamas. The possibility for being, literally, stronger together fades, and we are riven by resentments that are even deeper and more urgent than they were before.
There has been a lot of talk in this election about Hillary Clinton’s failure to adequately appeal to America’s working-class white men, who are suffering from the collapse of manufacturing and coal industries and plagued by a heroin epidemic. But maybe a woman trying to build a coalition of marginalized groups, and espousing policies that would help those groups, simply could never have appealed to Trump’s base — even though those policies would also have helped that base. Yes, Clinton was weak on trade. Yes, she made money giving speeches to Wall Street. Yes, she was an Establishment candidate in a populist era. But Occam’s razor suggests that a wave of white men and women, low-income to college-educated, who came out in unanticipated numbers to vote against the female successor to a black president, and for a candidate whose supporters openly proposed imprisoning and killing both of them, were not acting wholly in response to Clinton’s waffling on TPP. Even suggesting that, critics are told, is exacerbating the problem: Alienating white men (and women) by noting that they responded to racism, sexism, and xenophobia is apparently more grievous a political miscalculation than giving voice to racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
But as we look forward, we must note that more than half of voters did look toward another America, a future in which participation is diverse and needs are interconnected. Hillary Clinton, the first major-party woman candidate for president of the United States, won more votes than her opponent, the man who will become only the fourth president in history to take office after winning the Electoral College and losing the popular vote. Had this happened in reverse, of course, it would be bedlam, because the will of American whiteness would have been superseded by the (rigged) system of Electoral College voting that afforded non-whites a threatening degree of power. But because this result is an affirmation of whiteness and of maleness, both in terms of the electorate and the candidate who won — there is no threat of incivility. Hillary Clinton conceded early Wednesday morning. Barack Obama welcomed Donald Trump to the White House on Thursday. Michelle showed Melania around.
This is normal — America as it has always been, not yet the better version we hoped it could be. But the half of America that lost is devastated. “Crying as if someone died” is a text message I received from more than one friend last week. And it is as if someone died: a dream of what we could have been, of the president we could have had. And about the loss of one of the most inspiring (and sure, flawed, but good God am I tired of having to always acknowledge that she was flawed) leaders many of us will know.
There are those who argue that this election was not a referendum on women, it was a referendum on one woman; if the Democratic candidate had been Elizabeth Warren or practically anyone else, this might not have been the outcome. Throughout the election, many people complained that Clinton was not beating Trump by 20 points. How could she not be mopping the floor with this lying, bile-spewing monstrosity? But plenty of us understood all too well that the exceedingly prepared woman often loses the job to the far-less-qualified man. And, for the record, she did lead him by 20 points or more — with African-American voters, with Latino voters, with single women voters under 55, and by close to that number with Asian-American voters; the only reason this election was even close was because of white people, mostly white men. Few seem eager to examine the possibility that certain segments of America simply do not want to be led by a woman, and that almost every other explanation for what was wrong with her — her high negatives, reputation for being untrustworthy, the email mess — originates with the ways she has been systematically demonized her whole career for being a threatening woman.
The media narrative about the wretchedness of her political skills has obscured the fact that Hillary Clinton was a pretty great candidate for the presidency. Not a magnetic or inspiring speaker, no. The bearer of way too much awkward baggage, yes. But also: steady and strong and strategic and smart. Despite being under investigation by Congress and the FBI and the media, despite having her State Department emails made public, despite having her campaign staff’s emails hacked, despite being married to a man whose legislative and personal history made him deeply problematic, and despite the rolling waves of sexism directed at her and the racism directed at her predecessor and political partner Obama, she literally won the popularity contest. And the fact that she tried to build a coalition of voters that brought together the marginalized groups that will one day be the majority in this country was inspired and forward-thinking, even in its ultimate failure.
We have gotten a clear view of how deeply this country is invested in keeping women and people of color on the sidelines. This divide does not disappear now that the election is over, and the venom spewed by our future president and his supporters during the campaign is unlikely to subside. The reproductive-rights activist Alison Turkos has written of how, on the night of the third debate, she was walking in Manhattan in a Clinton-Kaine T-shirt when a man grabbed her and whispered in her ear, “Hillary Clinton’s a fucking cunt and so are you.” Swastikas, alongside SIEG HEIL graffiti, were spray-painted on a building in South Philadelphia on Election Night. Two Babson College students drove a truck waving a Trump flag through the campus of Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley College, taking care to drive past Harambee House, the school’s African-American center, on Wednesday morning. On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, traders booed Hillary Clinton as she was giving her concession speech, shouting “Lock her up!”
We are in a period of tremendous national turmoil. What we are seeing is a backlash not just against Clinton’s candidacy but against the entire eight years of the Obama administration. It’s not just about who gets to be president. It’s about who gets to vote for the president, who gets to stay in America and make their families here and how those families get to be configured. It’s about who controls the culture, who makes the art, who makes the policies, whom those policies benefit and whom they harm.
As Clinton pointed out that Sunday at the Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, the spaces between advances in our society are often long ones: Nearly 100 years passed between African-Americans being guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of all the women who attended the convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, only one of them lived to see women get the vote in 1920. A few of those women who recall the passage of the 19th Amendment, and many more black women who had to fight for their franchise in the Jim Crow South, got to vote for a woman for president on Tuesday. They won’t live to see a woman inaugurated. But … someday, someone.
*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.
*Reports on black voters’ support for Proposition 8 have been revised and complicated since initial exit polls. Ta-Nehisi Coates reexamined the data here.