I’m going to posit something radical: The most vocal support for Hillary Clinton comes from women in the commentariat, very much like myself, who have had to fight sexism to succeed in public-facing, white-collar professions and relate to Hillary’s struggle to do the same. Many of these women have also engaged in other struggles that are the opposite of Hillary’s—women like Sady Doyle, Amanda Marcotte, and my own colleague Katha Pollitt are foes of Wall Street and imperial misadventure, while Hillary has often been a friend to the wealthy, and a hawk. A quote from Lena Dunham, stumping for Hillary in Iowa, captures the sentiment well: “As a newly grown-up woman who has experienced my fair share of backlash, public shaming and of puritanical judgements, that [Hillary’s resistance to sexist attacks] really moves me.” And it’s not just true for someone thrust into fame as quickly as Dunham. Every well-known feminist is subjected to the same language on Twitter that is directed toward Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail: bitch, harpy, dumb, ugly, and so on. As Doyle writes, “Her story moves me…simply as an example of a woman who got every misogynist trick in the world thrown at her, and who didn’t let it slow her down. On that level, she’s actually become a bit of a personal role model.” To quote another Clinton, we feel her pain.
There is a part of our own pain that we hope Hillary Clinton will fix. Marcotte, no stranger to misogynist trolls of all stripes, writes that “yes, having a woman president does matter, if only to spend election night watching the spreading urine stains on the pants of the men who spent months lecturing feminists.” Erica Brazelton wrote in these pages in June 2013 that “seeing said bodies in spaces not originally reserved for them matters.” Or to quote Sady Doyle, “When people yell at me, or dislike me, I no longer think oh, how horrible this is for me. I now think, well, if Hillary can do it. Seriously. If Hillary Clinton can be called an evil hag by major media outlets for most of her adult life and run for president, I can deal with blocking ten or twenty guys on Twitter.” Some of those guys are Sanders supporters; much digital ink has been spilled over the presence of “Bernie bros,” or dudes whose support for their candidate is expressed by being assholes to Hillary supporters. In other words, Hillary Clinton’s professional success represents one step closer to a meritocracy, where every little girl (and boy) knows that a woman can be president, and that this might trickle down to all of our workplaces, allowing each professional young woman to be taken a bit more seriously. To quote Kanye West’s timeless words, her presence itself is a gift—what she does is of secondary importance.
This is a really interesting argument, because it is not, of course, very easy to measure the power of example. But let’s try. Some countries have tried to create policy around female representation. For example, lawmakers in Norway noticed that women were vastly underrepresented on corporate boards. So, in 2003, they passed a requirement that 40 percent of every LLC board be female. Eleven years later, a study has found that “no evidence of significant differential improvements for women in the post-reform cohort, either in terms of average earnings or likelihood of filling in a top position in a Norwegian business.” Women still, by and large, take time off to raise children and suffer from sexism in promotions. There has, however, been another Nordic model that’s worked quite well. In 1995, Sweden put in place a policy that not only offered generous parental leave, but motivated both men and women to take it by offering some months of parental leave that would be lost if men didn’t take advantage of them. This counteracted the effects of entrenched sexism (women would stay home and fall behind, while men did not). Today, things aren’t perfect, but women take 75 percent of parental leave, as opposed to 99.5 percent in 1974, and Sweden has ranked in the top four countries for gender equality since the World Economic Forum introduced their gender gap rankings in 2006. In other words, bright examples are a pretty inefficient way to create change, while interventions in the workplace and the distribution of wealth works pretty well.