Let’s stop for a minute to appreciate this historic moment
July 29, 2016 12:00 AM
Sarah Grimke, pre-Civil War abolitionist and advocate for women's rights
By Gail Collins
Now, everybody wears the pants in the family.
While the Democrats have been celebrating the nomination of Hillary Clinton, I’ve been thinking about all the American women, from the 1600s through World War II, who got arrested for wearing trousers in public. You’d like to imagine them out there somewhere watching those Clinton pantsuits, exchanging high-fives. Ditto all the women who supported the deeply uncomfortable bloomer movement, in the name of a feminist future.
The election of the first woman major-party nominee is a political event, but it’s also a historic one. Once everyone leaves here and goes home, we probably won’t have much chance to talk about that angle. Really, there’s going to be a lot of other stuff on the agenda. The Democrats hadn’t even gotten to Ms. Clinton’s acceptance speech before everyone was distracted by Donald Trump encouraging the Russians to spy on his opponent.
It’s also becoming clear that the campaign is so fixated on those ever-elusive white males that many Democrats would prefer to forget Susan B. Anthony and talk about Babe Ruth. That’s political life. But just give us a little more time to dwell.
I’d like to think that somewhere, all the women who worked for this moment through American history are watching and nodding happily. Like the sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who really don’t get enough mention. They were the daughters of a wealthy pre-Civil War South Carolina slave owner who figured out on their own, when they were hardly more than babies, that the system was wrong. (When Sarah was about 4 she went to the docks and asked a sea captain to take her to a place where whipping was prohibited.)
They went north, became lecturers, and there was something about their earnest, sweet, humorless determination that allowed them to get away with the political equivalent of murder. They trotted around the country, speaking for abolition and women’s rights to audiences that — shockingly — included men.
You had your occasional torch-bearing protesters, but for the most part, they triumphed by simply ignoring the possibility of bad outcomes. Angelina wound up marrying a dashing fellow abolitionist, Theodore Weld, to the amazement of Americans who had never conceived that an advocate of equal rights for women could ever find a husband.
Give the Grimkes a hand. And pick your own nominees to go with them.
Even if Hillary wins the White House, there will still be political worlds for women to conquer. While Bill Clinton gave the most supportive spousal speech conceivable at the convention, the fact that our first female presidential nominee is married to a former president is a bit of a downer for some people.
There’s a sense of cutting corners. But it was probably inevitable. The annals of first-ever female elected officials is pretty much a list of wives of congressmen, senators and governors who stepped in when their husbands died — or, occasionally, got indicted.
Some, to be honest, were embarrassing placeholders. Others were tireless public servants.
The greatest, pre-Hillary, may have been Margaret Chase Smith, whose husband, Clyde, was a Republican representative from Maine. (According to Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book “The Highest Glass Ceiling,” he was also a chronic womanizer who died of advanced syphilis.) Margaret had been running the congressman’s office and meeting with his constituents for a long time, and made it clear she didn’t intend to just sit in his seat.
She moved up to the Senate, took on Joe McCarthy communist hysteria, fought for women’s rights and bipartisanship. Ms. Smith ran for president herself in 1964 — the first woman regarded as a genuine contestant by either of the major parties. At the time, commentators had little compunction about suggesting she was, as one Los Angeles Times writer contended, “beyond the optimum years for the presidency.” Ms. Smith was 66 at the time.
So, Ms. Clinton, who is 68, has won one for Margaret Chase Smith. Also for the generations of American women who were described, as one 18th-century visitor from France put it, as “charming and adorable at fifteen, faded at twenty-three, old at thirty-five, decrepit at forty.”
The story keeps moving on. While Ms. Clinton was the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from New York, she was succeeded by Kirsten Gillibrand, a young and wildly energetic Democrat who came from a home where women were the family politicians. She had already attracted national notice when she went into labor after sitting through a 13-hour meeting of the Armed Services Committee.
But things still aren’t equal. We’ve made it to a point where a woman who’s been first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state can win a presidential nomination. Now let’s see how long it takes for someone who’s a little less overqualified to get the nod.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has made history. So here she comes, wearing her pants, ready to run.
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.