On the day Cheryl Lawson Walker graduated from college, she hadn’t thought much about the future, and 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 that day, for the first time, a student had been selected to address the commencement at the women’s school: Hillary Rodham. The two women lived in the same dorm and had chatted over 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 classmates had found condescending to them as women, Walker recalls.
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. Her election would surely be a milestone. But not all her fellow alumnae 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. “I can’t even articulate all the reasons it’s important,” Sarah Schlesinger Hirschfeld, 56, said. “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 power in other arenas, or witnessing the election of the first African-American president.
Walker supports Clinton but falls into the latter camp. “I know some people are hugely excited by it,” she said. “I just think it’s a good next step. Certainly not a milestone like when Barack Obama was elected.”
A recent poll found that while three-quarters of women voters felt America was ready for a female president, only about a third considered it very important to see it in their lifetime. (The poll was taken before Clinton clinched the nomination.)
To Debbie Walsh, of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “it’s almost as if (some) people feel like it’s already happened, but it hasn’t.”
You can sense the divide when you talk to Wellesley women of various generations—from women in their 70s who left college before feminism took hold, to women in their 20s, now emerging into the work force. Though the women interviewed all said they’d support Clinton in November, some have been vocal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Even among those who supported Clinton all along, their views aren’t necessarily what one might expect.
In May, a group of Wellesley ’62 grads gathered for an informal reunion—and to celebrate some 75th birthdays.
There was certainly a sense of school pride in Clinton’s rise, but talk was more focused on issues than candidates, attendee Martha Bewick said—on the economy, terrorism, the scourge of drugs.
And when the subject of the first 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.
Not so for Bewick’s classmate, novelist Susan Dworkin. “Younger women have such a different understanding of the importance of this thing,” Dworkin said. “To me, it’s gigantic!”
Women like her, Dworkin said, “grew up with the real torment of sexism—the things you couldn’t do, the places you couldn’t be.”
“I know that younger women don’t care,” she added with a sigh. “They take it for granted, the things we worked SO hard for.”
Laurel Prussing feels differently about the gender milestone—seeing it as something that was always going to happen, sooner or later.
“Listen, if it happened 20 years ago it would be different,” said Prussing, the Democratic mayor of Urbana, Illinois, and a Sanders supporter.
Sure, she said, we haven’t yet had 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.”
In a CNN/ORC poll in March, just 35% of women voters said it was “extremely” or “very” important to see a woman president in their lifetime.
“If you’re in your 20s,” Walsh, of Rutgers, said, ‘You probably think, “‘It’s going to happen in my lifetime—of COURSE it’s going to happen.'”
Emily DiVito, 23, graduated Wellesley last year and went to work for the Sanders campaign.
To DiVito, it is “completely important, hugely important” to see a female president one day. But ultimately, she opted for a candidate whose position on issues meshed with hers.
Frankie Frank, a rising Wellesley senior, said she supports Clinton for many reasons other than the simple issue of gender.
Still, Frank considers it shocking that there hasn’t yet been a woman president. And, she added, it’s not enough to say it’ll happen in, say, 20 years.
“I mean, I’m 21,” she said. “Waiting another lifetime? That’s absurd to me.”