For years, Hillary Clinton’s closest friends said that she would be better positioned to win the presidency if she embraced the historic nature of her candidacy, rather than playing it down just because the pantheon of American presidents has always been a men’s club.
In 2008, their pleas fell on the deaf ears of Clinton and her male strategists who believed she had to be more macho than the guys she ran against. But, after giving greater emphasis to issues of importance to women and their families in this year’s primaries, Clinton rolled out an even more explicit celebration of the trail she has blazed as the only woman ever to clinch a major party’s presidential nomination. And it was immediately clear what her friends have been talking about for nearly a decade now.
Clinton won’t win the presidency because she’s a woman; if that happens, it will be because voters viewed her as the best person to lead the country. But her gender is a feature of her narrative that is much more plus than minus.
It has given her a cause — the advancement of women and girls — that is larger than her own ambition. That cause is inexorably tied to generations of progress toward American ideals of justice and equality: black emancipation and civil rights, Hispanic migrant workers’ rights and gay rights among them. Just as these social, political and economic upheavals turned off older, white male conservatives — the bedrock of Donald Trump’s constituency — they are also elements of a common and proud American story of progress that unifies Democrats, as well as many Republicans and independents.
Clinton — who peppered her victory speech Tuesday night with the rare-for-her pronoun “we” — demonstrated that she now understands this dynamic as well as anyone in politics. After losing to Barack Obama in 2008, she sought to unify a fractured Democratic Party by highlighting parallels between the struggles of women and African Americans.
She echoed Sojourner Truth, a black suffragette, in her concession speech that spring and spoke of Harriet Tubman, a female conductor of the Underground Railroad, in her Democratic National Convention speech at the end of that summer.
Similarly, a campaign video released before Clinton’s address Tuesday night flashed images of female civil rights workers, migrant labor organizer Dolores Huerta, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates Shirley Chisholm and Margaret Chase Smith, and Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Women have been engaged not only in the fight for women’s rights, but also the struggles for civil rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and a variety of other human rights. The message: These are common battles.
If Clinton is to defeat Trump, it will be on the strength of her ability to unite a diverse group of Americans behind the theme of a shared struggle. Her credibility as a combatant in that fight begins with her gender and extends to her lifelong efforts to improve conditions for women and girls in Arkansas, across the United States and around the world. For a candidate who struggles with the public perception that she is disingenuous, there is unambiguous truth in her role as a pathbreaker for all women.
That runs counter to one of the biggest knocks against her — from Republican and Democratic critics — which is that she is out only for herself. It’s an easy-to-swallow narrative because Clinton has sought power and wealth for decades.
But her embrace of the historic nature of her candidacy allows her to connect herself to the women’s rights movement, tie that women’s rights movement to parallel fights for social and economic opportunity, and thus position herself as an avatar of progress toward the the fulfillment of the founding American ideals of equality and justice for all. “Women and men, young and old; Latino and Asian, African American and Caucasian; rich, poor and middle class; gay and straight,” Clinton’s voice says as images flick across the screen in her campaign video. “You have stood with me, and I will continue to stand strong with you — every time, every place, in every way that I can. The dreams we share are worth fighting for.”
Clinton has had difficulty convincing some voters that this campaign is about something other than her own ambition for the presidency, and many will never believe otherwise. She has also suffered for the perception that electing another Clinton is necessarily a pivot toward the past.
But Trump’s aggressive attempts to fracture the American community — his targeting of Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled and an array of accomplished women — have handed her the gift of a stark contrast. He has helped make her the champion of a common struggle that includes the fight for women’s rights.
If Clinton’s gender was a liability in the past, it’s an asset now.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.
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