When Hillary Clinton was nominated at the Democratic National Convention, the party celebrated with a video of a glass ceiling being shattered, only to reveal Clinton emerging triumphantly from the shards.
Although her achievement is moving to me, a woman of a certain age, it is unclear how many younger Americans appreciate the profound—and rapid—revolution underwriting this moment. In an interview in New York magazine last spring, Clinton recalled an encounter she’d had many years ago, when she took the LSAT. A young man said to her, “If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.” The interview inspired a comment in which the writer complained: “I don’t believe for one second her story about the LSAT…. This is more of her play for sympathy and victimization.”
This is a bitter election, and there are those who will never believe that the sun is in the sky if Hillary Clinton says so. But I attended law school only a few years after she did, and her story is certainly exemplary of what my female classmates and I were told. And it’s more or less what Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her eight other female classmates encountered in 1956, when Erwin Griswold, the dean of Harvard Law School, demanded to know how each of them justified taking the space of a presumably more productive man.
I graduated in 1975, when women composed only 8 percent of a class of approximately 500. Those numbers improved rapidly during the activism of the late ’70s and ’80s. Today, women make up approximately 50 percent of the students at most American law schools. Yet many do not know that Hillary Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and other icons of today’s legal landscape came of age in a time—again, not so very long ago—when most law schools struggled to find toilets that women could use. (Barbara Underwood, one of Yale Law School’s first female faculty members, was told to use the janitor’s closet.) We forget that the moral panic about bathroom access for transgender people has a direct precedent in the affective disgust that greeted the first generation of women—particularly pregnant women—who tried to use the toilets in formerly all-male bathrooms.
This amnesia about women’s history doesn’t mean that we have “overcome.” Indeed, such forgetfulness disguises the ways in which Clinton and other American women are still being subjected to debilitating disparagement and concrete limitations. President Obama’s election was so monumental and so unprecedented that it erased history in some quarters, particularly among the major media outlets, who sold it as an unqualified feel-good story, and among well-educated, left-leaning whites, for whom he was something of a relief—“articulate and bright and clean,” as then-Senator Joe Biden once put it.