Last week, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party’s nomination in the United States’ history of over two centuries as a democracy. The United States’ commitment to women’s rights was first sealed back in 1919, via the 19th amendment to the United States’ constitution – which accorded women with the right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is often deemed as the result of the first wave of the feminist movement in the United States. The movement was anchored in valuing women as “full citizens and arbiters of society beyond marriage and childbearing.” Incidentally, on June 4, 1919, the very day the United States Congress was passing the aforementioned Amendment to the Constitution, Hillary Clinton’s mother Dorothy Emma Howell was born. About a century later, Hillary’s rise is thus a clear manifestation of that seminal amendment, the success of the feminist movement’s first wave, and of course – on some level, the prophetic conclusion of her mother’s journey.
Today, as scores of Americans purport their support for Hillary’s bid for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, her stature as a voice for equal rights is unmatched. For 14 consecutive years, and 20 in all, Clinton has been named the woman Americans admire most, according to a yearly Gallup poll. Hillary Clinton’s evolution as a global icon for the furtherance of women’s rights, has largely coincided with the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States – which began shorty after the Second World War.
According to historians like William H. Chafe, the Second World War proved to be a “watershed event” in redefining economic roles of women in the American society. As American military deployments surged across Europe, and the Asia-Pacific, industrial acumen on the domestic front suffered. In order to compensate for the resultant labor deficit and comply with war-time restructuring of industries, female participation in American labor force sharply rose. By 1945, one out of every four married women, was employed at the domestic front. The aviation industry in the United States became one of the largest employers of women. More than 310,000 women worked in the industry in 1943, representing 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce – as compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years. In the American war-effort, at home and abroad, about 350,000 women served in uniform.
The war also proved instrumental in eroding policies that constrained employment of married women. “Marriage Bars” – stated policy of firms, and governments to not hire married women, and to fire single women upon marriage – were instituted before the 1930s. They vanished sometime after early 1940s, and by the 1950s they turned extinct. However, this change failed to carry through in the years to come.
Lionel Shriver recounts, “By the end of the Second World War, 37 percent of women worked. But when the boys came home, they wanted their jobs back.” Thus, even though the rhetoric of wartime mobilization led many to believe that this progressive shift would be solidified, in actuality… none materialized.
As noted author Betty Friedan stated in her 1963 bestseller ‘The Feminine Mystique’, women were thereafter “taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights – the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminist fought for.” Thereafter, statistics regarding number of women enrolled in higher education, and as a representation of the American workforce sharply withered. Women were then expected to draw “a sense of fulfillment” as wives and mothers. This was further enforced by numerous columns and articles in American magazines, which reeked of a “Freudian sophistication that they (women) could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.” In 1966, Friedan helped found the National Organization for Women, the largest organization in the women’s movement, and served as its first president. She led the 500,000-person Women’s Strike for Equality in New York in 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. In addition to influential works like The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan’s work sparked the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States. Hillary Clinton was also amongst the millions of American women who were agonized by the mystique.
The height of the mystique coincided with the United States’ geopolitical tussle for ideological, military, economic primacy with the Soviet Union – or simply, the Cold War. It stirred a conversation about the role of women in the American society. The Soviet Union’s lead in the ‘space race’ was consolidated with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s space odyssey in 1961. Back then, numerous American scientists did note that America’s “greatest source of unused brainpower was women.” But, the mystique by then was so entrenched in the American society, that girls refused to study streams like that of physics because it was seen as “unfeminine.” Then, on 16 June, 1963, the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkova, 26, became the first woman to be sent into the Earth’s orbit. On Tereshkova’s return, standing beside her at the Red Square, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev mocked the United States. He said,
The bourgeoisie always claim that women are the weaker sex.
Now here you can see a typical Soviet woman who in the eyes of the bourgeoisie is weak, Look at what she has shown
to America’s astronauts.
Lt. Tereshkova’s flight was projected as a clear testament of equal rights for women under Khrushchev’s regime. Hillary Clinton had an encounter with the “sexual discrimination” that Khrushchev referred to, with respect to the Cold War’s Space Race. Right about that time, in the 1960s, while Hillary Clinton was in middle school, she set her sights on becoming an astronaut. Clinton once recounted that dream, decimated by the mystique.
… I wrote a letter to NASA and asked them what (I had to) do to be an astronaut. I told them something about myself and they wrote back and said, ‘We are not accepting girls as astronauts.’
Thereafter, She came of age at Wellesley College — where she urged her peers to incite incremental change and inspired them to work at “making the impossible possible”. Decades later, as First Lady of the United States, Hillary gave a befitting response to the subjugation of women under autocratic regimes. Amidst a reverberating applause at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, First Lady Clinton famously proclaimed, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all” Thereby, according feminism the simple powerful phrase (that) became the battle cry of a global movement.
Through the latter half of her term as first lady, she endured humiliation as her husband grappled through his sex scandals. However, She emerged from those years with high regard and launched her own political career with a bid for the Senate. As a Senator from New York, Hillary championed access to emergency contraception and voted in favor of strengthening women’s right to make their own health care decisions.
Fourteen years after that seminal speech in Beijing, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State proved pivotal in devising a feminist doctrine for the United States’ conduct of international relations. This doctrine was ascribed to her as the Hillary Doctrine. As Hillary Clinton defined it herself, “the subjugation of women (is) a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.” Hillary Clinton during her tenure as the Secretary of State, spearheaded structural changes that instilled women and their issues as pivotal facets of American foreign policy. She spurred the elevation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues to the seventh floor of the State Department with a special “ambassador at large,” who mandated gender training for all new foreign-service officers and under whom USAID programming for women mushroomed. President Obama made this a permanent post during Clinton’s last week in office. As the United States’ apex diplomat, Clinton oversaw the creation of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. She also introduced the Global Health Initiative, whereby the United States pledged to invest $63 billion to help allied countries provide maternal and infant health services.
Today, as she makes a bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton’s untoward tryst with the mystique continues. Hillary Clinton has often referred to herself as an aficionado of pantsuits. Owing to the same, she has been continually brandished on social media platforms as someone who ‘dresses like a lesbian.’ Thus, signifying the blatant persistence of the mystique’s “ideals of appearance,” and furtherance of its archaic sartorial gender stereotype. The same only furthers the stigma attached to women that prefer to dress as they like, and not as they must.
Political observers have called her voice “loud, flat, harassing to the ear.” They have said she has a “decidedly grating pitch and punishing tone” and called her “shrill”. The scrutiny over her voice stems from the fundamentals of the mystique that prescribes certain ways in which women are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with embracing their “femininity”. The Republican front-runner Donald Trump has said, “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.” He has questioned her “strength” and “stamina,” and joined in to mock her for “shouting.”
However, as Hillary Clinton surges ahead, her resilience stands forte, her grit unparalleled, and her resolve intact. As history would testify, these attributes of solidity have only swelled with each passing encounter she has had with the mystique. One may argue that the second wave of feminism dwindled as it glossed over race, class and thus failed in addressing the issues that divided women. However, as enunciated – with Hillary Clinton as a case in-point, the essence of the mystique continues to thrive. Study of contemporary media – as a reflection of the societies we live in, serve as apt litmus tests to determine the persistence of the mystique. And as even an offhand study of today’s media would suggest, gender stereotypes continue to be furthered via sexual objectification of women, via advertisements chalking out images of the “ideal” homemaker and wrongful perpetuation of a woman’s “traditional” role in a society. The eradication of the mystique would only hold true when women around the world – and not just in the United States, are rid of the mystique’s constraints and pressures. Until then, women around the world would be compelled to make the gut-wrenching choice between, or risk living in perpetual guilt for having been a “career women,” and not an “ideal” mother or wife.
Hillary’s ascendance to the presidency of the United States will certainly not oversee the systematic expiration of the mystique. But it sure would lob a decisive blow to the same. And it would be a considerable step – in the right direction, to eventually end what Friedan spurred in the United States in the decades following the Second World War.
The author, Kashish Parpiani is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. His primary research interest is the United States’ Primacy and Grand Strategy. This piece was written with research inputs from Maureen McCord and Shaasthra Shetty.