Now that Hillary Clinton has become the *official presumptive nominee* for president of the Democratic party and first woman standard bearer for a major U.S. party, it’s worth revisiting a post I wrote a few months ago about women’s paths to political power in historical perspective. I also have some questions about the widespread tendency to call Clinton “Hillary” instead of following the political and journalistic convention of calling her by her surname.
As most of us know, Clinton’s rise to political prominence is singular in the U.S. not because of her kin connections (through a husband), but because of her sex:
Upon emergence of the liberal state around 1800, in which a select portion of citizens elect their political leaders to one degree or another, women’s opportunities to lead and rule were actually diminished, because democracies in this era restricted both voting rights and eligibility for public office to men only. It is an uncomfortable fact for we Americans, we evangelists of democracy, that populism is not liberationist. In fact, it ratifies contemporary prejudices and stereotypes–religious, racial, and of course, gender. In the past century, Western democracies enfranchised women, but women in elective office have remained a tiny or merely small minority compared to men in elective office.
. . . . .
Given 6,900 years of history (at least) when everyone on the planet saw political leadership and its close correlative, military power, as the prerogative of men, what has been women’s path to elective office? Not surprisingly, even in the United States political power has been passed to women (as it had usually been to men) through kinship lines. Most of the first American women in congress were the widows of congressmen who were asked to serve out the rest of their late husbands’ terms, and some of them then went on to run for an win their own terms. We have also seen daughters of congressmen and senators run for office, just as we have seen male political dynasties repeatedly ratified throughout the history of the republic: The Adamses, the Harrisons, and more recently, the Roosevelts and the Bushes are all families in which kinship and name recognition played significant roles.
Therefore, given the weight of 7,000 years of recorded history, we should not be surprised that the first serious woman contender for the presidency in both 2008 and 2016 would be someone with kinship ties to another president (through marriage, not blood). It’s been continually amazing and frustrating to me to hear even Democrats and leftists complain that they think Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency is illegitimate because of her kinship tie to Bill Clinton–that it smacks of entitlement, rather than merely history, which is how the political ambitions of sons and nephews and male cousins of U.S. presidents is coded and discussed.
We Americans like to think that we’re over aristocracy, but it’s clear that it’s been a powerful force in American politics since the early republic. We’re still lousy with younger Bushes, Kennedys, Browns, Tafts, (Tafts!) and even the occasional Roosevelt who may still harbor political ambition.
Keep this in mind as we hear the Clinton campaign itself as well as the national and local media refer to the presumptive Democratic nominee as “Hillary” rather than Clinton. I’ve assumed that the habit, which clearly comes from her campaign with all of those “Hillary” signs and “ready for Hillary” bumper stickers, etc., was about trying to create a little separation between herself and her husband. But I’ve been a little surprised to see and hear the national media and her Republican opponent pick up on this first-naming rather than choosing to call her by the (historically) more formal and more democratic surname.
This is all complicated of course by the fact that Hillary Rodham kept her birth name several years into her marriage, and only began to use her husband’s name in 1982 when he was trying to reclaim the governorship of Arkansas after being ousted after one term (1979-81). Of course, Bill Clinton himself carries the name “Clinton” not because of ancient lineage but because he was adopted by an abusive stepfather! So the name “Clinton” for both of the most prominent Clintons in the world is really a portmanteau identity, when you think about it. As the daughter of a man whose surname comes from his adopted parents, I like this–“blood ties” and lineage are a kind of genealogical fiction. (Don’t tell the producers of Who Do You Think You Are!)
The United States is making history in this election. Hillary I it is.