On the day Cheryl Lawson Walker graduated from college, she hadn’t thought very much about the future and her place in it — or the obstacles she might face as a woman.
The place was Wellesley; the year was 1969, and the women’s movement was just emerging as a force in America.
But on that day, for the first time, a student had been selected to address the commencement at the women’s school: Hillary Rodham, the student government president. The two women lived in the same dorm, where they’d chatted over their salads at communal meals.
Rodham’s speech sent a jolt through the class.
“We were just thrilled that she felt empowered enough and articulate enough” to speak so boldly, rebutting the remarks of the U.S. senator who spoke before her, which many had found condescending, Walker recalled. Rodham was “much more forward-looking” than many of her classmates, she said, and it would be some years before they, too, really recognized the obstacles they would have to overcome.
The speaker that day — now known as Hillary Clinton — is edging closer to breaking the ultimate glass ceiling as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Her election would surely be a major milestone for women. But her fellow alumnae don’t all feel the same way about its significance.
To be sure, for some, the election of the first female president would be a thrilling moment they’ve been waiting for years to see, the culmination of a struggle that lasted much too long. “I can’t even articulate all the reasons it’s important,” Sarah Schlesinger Hirschfeld, 56, a New York doctor, said. “I think it’s tremendously important for all women, whether they know it or not, to see a woman in the most important leadership role in the country — and for men to see it, too.”
But to others, the milestone has been eclipsed by other advances — seeing women achieve positions of power in different arenas, or witnessing the election of the first African-American president.
Walker, now 68, supports Clinton, but falls into the latter camp. “I know some people are hugely excited by it, see it as symbolically an enormous step, but I don’t happen to be among them,” she said. “I just think it’s a good next step. Certainly not a milestone like it was when Barack Obama was elected.”
And the recently retired literature professor said her young female students, many of whom supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (as have her own children, ages 32 and 35), feel the same way: “For them, the idea of electing a woman is nowhere near as significant as electing the first African-American president was.”
A recent poll found that while three-quarters of registered women voters felt America was ready for a female president, only about a third considered it very important to see one in their lifetime. (The poll was taken before Clinton clinched the nomination.)
“The numbers aren’t high,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said. She attributes it partly to a generational divide, with younger women having grown up accustomed to seeing women in positions of power. “It’s almost as if (some) people feel like it’s already happened, but it hasn’t,” she said of the milestone.
You sense the divide when you talk to Wellesley women of various generations — from women in their 70s who left college years before feminism took hold, to contemporaries of Clinton, to women in their 20s now emerging into the workforce. Though the women interviewed all said they planned to support Clinton over Donald J. Trump, some were vocal supporters of Sanders in the primaries. Even among those who supported Clinton all along, their views on the milestone aren’t necessarily what one might expect.
In May, a group of Wellesley ‘62 grads gathered for one of their frequent, informal reunion weekends, meeting for meals on campus and in nearby Boston and celebrating their 75th birthdays. They came from an accomplished class, including a former head of the United States Tennis Association, the first African-American woman in the country to chair an academic pathology department and the late writer Nora Ephron.
When conversation touched on the election, there was certainly a sense of pride at the prospect of a president from Wellesley, one attendee, Martha Bewick, said. But talk was more focused on issues than candidates, she said — on the economy, on terrorism, on the scourge of drugs.
In fact, when the subject of a female president came up, Bewick said, “the general mood was that the question wasn’t pressing” — that it was more of an issue back in 2008, when Clinton faced Obama in the primaries.
“When we elected a black American president, the issue sort of went away,” she said, summing up the mood of the discussion. “There are so many other urgent issues.”
Personally, Bewick, who’s voted both Democratic and Republican in the past, said she’s found herself warming up to Clinton over the months, becoming increasingly impressed with her qualifications. But gender is not foremost on her mind.
“Women have done so well in other fields,” she said. “The presidency was going to catch up sometime.”
To classmate Susan Dworkin, a novelist and playwright, that day can’t come soon enough. To her, a female president would signify a “huge victory” for women.
“Younger women have such a different understanding of the importance of this thing,” Dworkin, who lives in Becket, Massachusetts, said. “To people of my age, to me, it’s gigantic!”
One reason for the divide, Dworkin suggested, is that women her age “grew up with the real torment of sexism — the things you couldn’t do, the places you couldn’t be, the marriages you had to have, the work you never got. We came of age in the middle of this struggle, and we had leaders like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem who pointed out to us what was wrong with our situation.”
“I know that younger women don’t care,” Dworkin added with a sigh. “They take it for granted, the things that we work SO hard for … we were of the generation that really went through all the crap. So Hillary, if she becomes president, that’s the winning of a great struggle for me.”
Laurel Prussing sees the milestone as more of a logical progression — one that was always going to happen at some point.
“Listen, if it happened 20 years ago it would be different,” said Prussing, who is the Democratic mayor of Urbana, Illinois, and a supporter of Sanders. “But people are used to women now. There’s a whole new generation of young people who expect that women are equal.”
Sure, she said, there hasn’t yet been a woman president, “but we have senators, we have governors, it’s gotten to be part of the landscape now — rather than an asteroid from outer space hitting the earth. It’s an achievement, but it’s not earthshaking.”
Prussing was first elected to her post in 2005 and has been in politics since the 1970s, when she was one of the first women elected to her county board.
“I went through all this 30 years ago,” she said. “It’s a new world now.”
Prussing recalled introducing Sanders at a rally of thousands in Chicago. “I said I was supporting Sanders, and I don’t think I’m going to hell! There was a huge roar.”
She was referring to comments by Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state who said in February while campaigning with Clinton that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Some female Sanders supporters were offended by the suggestion that they shouldn’t be able to choose their own candidate (Steinem was also criticized when she said young women supported Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” She later apologized.)
“I mean, come on!” Prussing said. “We fought all this time and we got the right to vote … I don’t vote for somebody just because they’re a woman.”
In a CNN/ORC poll conducted in March, just 35 percent of women voters said it was either “extremely important” or “very important” to them to see a woman elected president in their lifetime. (The number was 25 percent among male voters).
Walsh, of Rutgers, thinks things could change once women see Clinton accept the nomination at the convention in Philadelphia — potentially a visually powerful moment.
Still, she said, “If you’re 26, I don’t think you see your lifetime’s end looming in front of you in the same way you do even in your 50s. So you think, ‘It’s going to happen in my lifetime — of COURSE it’s going to happen.’”
Emily DiVito, 23, graduated Wellesley a year ago. Six months later, she went to work for the Sanders campaign, canvassing in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. (She’s now working on a local race in Florida.) When she went back to visit Wellesley, she said, “I would step on campus and think, ‘Oh gosh, do people hate me for whom I support?’ It’s such a strong community there.”
But Wellesley is not entirely Clinton country: In a survey the school conducted in late May of graduating seniors, 65 percent of 215 respondents supported Clinton, 14 percent supported Sanders, and 2 percent supported Donald Trump. The students also said the gender of a political candidate mattered only a little (51 percent) or not at all (31 percent) in this election.
DiVito, 23, said it is “completely important, hugely important” to her to see a female president one day. But she decided to support a candidate whose position on the issues meshed with hers. “At the end of the day I voted for a single person,” she said.
DiVito was particularly stung by the remarks of Albright and Steinem. “I took them personally,” she said. “Especially because I was working for Sanders — it wasn’t just like I had a free bumper sticker!”
She understands what some older women say about having gone through a bitter struggle in order to get women where they are today. But, she said, “I think I can be a free thinker and an independent person and come to my own conclusions — and STILL attribute my existence in that sphere to Steinem and Albright and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisolm and all those awesome kickass ladies that came before.”
Frankie Frank, a rising senior at Wellesley and a science major, said that when Wellesley students express support for Clinton — as she does — people often assume it’s either because Clinton went to Wellesley or because she’s a woman.
“But it’s not the only reason,” she said of the gender issue. “It’s not the only thing we want.”
Still, Frank considers the milestone of a female president a crucial one. “I think the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is shocking,” she said. And, she added, it’s not enough to say, “Maybe in 10 or 20 years.”
“I think the more you say maybe the next one, maybe the next one … I mean, 20 years is a really long time!” she said. “Especially for me. I’m 21. Waiting another lifetime? That’s absurd to me.”
On the day that Hillary Rodham made her splash as a commencement speaker, earning a spot in a Life magazine spread on prominent graduates around the country, classmate Cheryl Brierton received her diploma, too.
Brierton doesn’t recall precisely Rodham’s words, but she recalls how they made her feel.
“She basically said to the senator, ‘We’re going to get out there in the world and do all KINDS of things, and be all KINDS of things … ,’” Brierton recalled. “It sure felt great to have someone speaking up for all of us.”
Years later, Brierton said, she applied for a job as a county prosecutor and was told that though she was the best candidate, she wasn’t getting the position — because people might have trouble accepting a female prosecutor. It was a dispiriting experience. But a few years after that, Brierton found herself in San Diego at a state bar meeting. There, she saw something deeply moving to her.
“I saw all these women who were justices on all different courts,” she said. “I didn’t realize the importance of seeing something like that. The tears came pouring down. It was so powerful that it made me realize how important symbols can be in addition to words.”
“I thought, ‘Yes, just like Hillary said at graduation — women can do anything.’ I don’t think people realize how important it is to SEE it.”
Another graduating classmate that day was Pamela Colony. A biology professor in Cobleskill, New York, who identifies as an independent voter, Colony said she looks around at the rest of the world and sees prominent women leaders.
“I mean, look at all the countries that have had a woman president. What’s wrong with us, this great, liberated country?”
Not that Colony thinks women are, necessarily, better politicians than their male counterparts, based on their gender.
“It’s not to say women are infallible or better than men,” she said. “But it IS important. It’s a step we need to make.”
“And I think now is a good time.”