For Older Women, Election 2016 Isn’t About Hashtags. It’s About History
When the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, MarJoe Davidson dyed her mohawk in the team’s colors. But on Wednesday night, as she rode the bus to the Democratic National Convention, it was an array of red, white, and blue—to match her outfit and her level of enthusiasm at the prospect of electing the first woman president in November.
Davidson, 79, has been waiting for this day a long time.
She first started thinking of herself as a feminist back in 1976 when she was fighting for custody of her son, she explains. The suit was historic in nature, because Davidson was the first lesbian to bring such a case before a jury. It was thanks to Gloria Steinem and a group of women Davidson calls simply “the feminists” that she was able to pay for the legal fees. And even though she lost custody of her son, she never forgot the way “the feminists” rallied around her.
“These women realized the importance of this, not just for me, but possibly other women,” Davidson remembers. Now, she wants to pay back that debt by rallying around another precedent-setting woman: Hillary Clinton.
“I got to crying last night on the bus,” she says, thinking of Clinton’s historic nomination. “A lot of young girls do not realize how hard it was to be a woman.”
As Clinton accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination at the convention last night, she spoke at length about shattering the glass ceiling and what it means not just for women, but for all humanity. “When any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone,” Clinton said.
And yet, this election cycle, Clinton’s lack of support among young women has been the subject of much curiosity. It once seemed a foregone conclusion that young, liberal women would line up behind her. But they haven’t, insisting instead that gender alone cannot sway their votes. And so, all primary long, it has been a battle between #FeeltheBern and #ImWithHer. For many Democratic women of a certain age who flocked to Philadelphia this week, all this resistance from the younger generation is a mystery. For women like Davidson, it can feel like millennials are taking for granted the rights “the feminists” fought so hard for.
“It didn’t just come naturally,” she says.
That was true for 77-year-old South Carolina delegate Kathryn Hensley, too. In the 1970s, she brought a gender discrimination charge against her employer, which, she says, repeatedly passed up qualified women, including herself, for senior positions. “I started looking for women I could use as a mentor, and there were none,” she recalls. Hensley won that suit, and eventually became a manager herself, using her status to seek out and lift up other talented women.
Back in 2008, Hensley says she was one of the last delegates to hold out for Clinton over then-Senator Barack Obama, because, she says, “I wanted to vote for a woman.” This November, she’ll finally get to do that.
“It’s always been at the forefront of my mind that we need more women in powerful positions,” Hensley says. “I hope I’m joined by an army of women who understand how important it is for future generations.”
But to the extent that army of the new generation is assembling behind Clinton, it may be for different reasons. At a Google-sponsored event at the convention called Women Rule, Brown University students Isabela Karibjanian, 18, and Caroline Jones, 20, told me they were both Sanders supporters during the primaries. They said that while they were happy a woman could be president, that wasn’t why they’ve shifted their support to Clinton. As Jones put it, “There’s no reason not to support her.”
She admitted, “I don’t think we’re forced to appreciate the significance the way older generations are.”
And I’m right there with them. At 29, I’m well aware of the challenges women still face globally and in the workplace, and write about it plenty. But I was raised with countless female role models in positions of power. At my all-girls high school, strong female leaders were the expectation, not the exception. In college, my mentor was the female head of the journalism department. My professional career took off under the inspiring and attentive leadership of a female editor-in-chief at Inc. magazine. And today, I can surf Twitter reading female thought leaders who can cut through existing power structures and build their own audiences online.
Yes, in past jobs I’ve had to fight for the same salary my male colleagues in equal positions earned, and listened to the stories of so many women in the tech industry who have been hit on or undermined as they try to build their businesses.
I know things are far from perfect for women my age. But I’m keenly aware that I am not processing this moment in the same way that, say, my own grandmothers are. One, now 83, was a single mother of four who was often the only woman in the room at the Mad Men-era ad agency where she worked. The other, now 90, was the daughter of a Russian immigrant who bravely stole off with her dowry to come to America at the turn of the century because her family had betrothed her to someone she didn’t love. That woman gave birth to my grandmother five years after women cast their first votes in 1920.
So much has changed since then. And this week, it changed even more. As First Lady Michelle Obama said in her address to the convention Monday, “Because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
That may be a bad thing for Clinton’s polls. But it’s a good thing for progress.
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