“You’ve come a long way, baby.”
A lot of readers may not recognize that reference, but I guarantee you that Hillary Clinton would. Back in the late ’60s and ’70s, as she came out of all-female Wellesley College and then Yale Law and began trying to elbow her way onto the bottom rungs of the male-dominated political ladder, a tobacco company was using that slogan to market its cigarettes to American women, telling them that they had made such enormous progress toward gender equality that hey, “you’ve got your own cigarette now, baby.”
The ads were everywhere. Its slogan was part validation, and in hindsight part condescending taunt, but that’s how it was back then. The Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment to give women full legal equality, had passed both houses of Congress by huge margins, with strong support from both parties. It was simple and straightforward — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — and its quick adoption by the necessary number of states was considered inevitable. Even a proposal to water it down by exempting women from the draft was defeated easily in Congress.
But it was not to be that easy, and that hurdle of state legislative approvals was never cleared. Instead, the ERA became an early victim of the culture wars, with conservative opponents fighting its adoption by claiming that it was anti-housewife, anti-mother, anti-family and anti-biblical, and would require same-sex bathrooms and other social horrors. It came up for a vote three times in the Georgia Legislature, and was handily defeated all three times.
It has taken all of Clinton’s adult working life, almost half a century, to progress from that supposedly enlightened time to a moment when a woman has finally been nominated to be president by a major American political party. And regardless of political ideology, it’s important to note that historic moment. Her progress is our progress.
And yes, the grumblers have a point. Hillary’s long road to the Democratic nomination took her first through the White House as Bill Clinton’s first lady, a fact that some would use to diminish her accomplishment, as if she rode in on her husband’s coattails. That ignores a lot of things, not least the very real and equal partnership between the two of them, a relationship that President Clinton — so far there’s still just the one — described in warm and glowing terms before a national TV audience last night.
In fact, the roots of much of today’s anti-Hillary sentiment can be found in the angry response that partnership inspired when the Clintons appeared on the national scene in the early ’90s. When Hillary defended her decision to have both a legal career and a family, saying back then that “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas,” the anger and hatred that comment elicited was stunning and to this day has still not abated.
And in the end, that grumbling about coattails reveals much more about us as a supposedly enlightened society than it does about Clinton. If the first and only woman ever to have made that ascent in our nation’s history was forced to walk in her husband’s shadow for a while to do it, surely it’s because the traditional paths taken by men have been blocked to her and to every other person of her gender. She took the only route that America offered to her.
You want another gauge at how difficult that path has been and continues to be to this day? Look right here at home, at Georgia. The people of this state have yet to elect a woman to serve as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator, attorney general and a number of other important roles.
Even more compelling, look at today’s political roster: Georgia has 14 members of Congress and two U.S. senators. None is a woman. We have eight executive officers elected statewide, from governor through agriculture secretary and state school superintendent; none is a woman. Throw in the five Public Service Commissioners elected statewide, and again all are male.
Thirty-three top state and federal offices. Thirty-three males. In 2016.
If the gender playing field were equal, that would be like flipping a coin 33 times, and having it come up heads 33 times in a row. According to a coin-flip probability calculator — and yes, such things exist, thank goodness — the odds of that happening naturally, without outside forces influencing the outcome, are 1.16415 X 10 to the negative 10th power.
Or one out of 8.59 billion.
So yes, powerful forces are undoubtedly at work to produce an outcome like that. You may not see them or understand them or want to acknowledge them. But like gravity, you know damn well that it exists, because you can see its impact everywhere around you. Overcoming that is a truly historic achievement, an achievement that will make it easier for other women in other roles to also defy those forces and reach for the pinnacle.
We’ve come a long way, baby; we still have a long way to go.