A Brief History of Hillary Clinton’s Complicated Relationship With the ‘Woman Card’

July 27, 2016, 7:12 PM UTC
Clintons help out at homeless shelter
Photograph by Richard Ellis—Getty Images

Hillary Clinton wants to remind you that she’s a feminist.

On Tuesday night, Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to secure the presidential nomination of a major political party. To highlight the importance of that milestone, her campaign created a powerful image in which the photographs of every (male) American president were shown on the jumbotron—and then shattered, with Clinton’s smiling face filling the screen in their stead.

Lest anyone miss the message, the nominee said it outright: “I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet.” After a few brief thank yous, she left the audience with: “If there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say I may become the first woman president but one of you is next.”


Playing up the history-making aspect of this election hasn’t always been Clinton’s M.O. In fact, it’s only during this campaign season that we’ve seen the longtime feminist play up her gender, beginning with her first campaign speech, back in April of last year: “When women are held back, our country is held back. When women get ahead, everyone gets ahead,” she said then.

It was a very different tune than the one she sang in previous contests. In her first big race, her 2000 bid for senator of New York, she worked to distance herself from her identity as a former first lady, instead portraying herself as a tough political operative focused on policy. And when she ran for the Democratic ticket against Barack Obama in 2008, she played down her gender, preferring to focus on promoting herself as the more pragmatic, experienced candidate. In fact, that experience likely plays a part in her willingness to focus on her historic status today: Some observers have speculated that ceding the role of the history-making candidate to Obama may have cost her the nomination eight years ago.

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Of course, this isn’t the first time Clinton has had to rethink how she presents herself in terms of her gender.

The New York Times‘ Michael Kelly described in 1993 how the wife of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton went from “Hillary Rodham, a bespectacled and slightly hippieish feminist lawyer” in the 70s to Mrs. Bill Clinton, “a more traditional political wife, complete with contact lenses, shorter, blonder hair and ladylike dresses” in the 80s.

A decade later, when Bill ran for president of the U.S., she again had to work against the belief that she was “a radical feminist who has little use for religious values or even the traditional family unit” and “total contempt for traditional American women,” as Citizens United characterized her in 1992. Her next move? Appearing in a flurry of women’s magazines teaching Sunday school and at home with her daughter and baking cookies with former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Today, Clinton seems to split the difference. On one hand, she showed Wednesday that she is proud to embrace her status as the first female nominee. Yet she was introduced by a Bill Clinton speech that reminded America of her status as a mother and grandmother—complete with a reminiscence about her inserting drawer liners in Chelsea’s dorm room. It was a powerful reminder that, unlike their male colleagues, female politicians must always be thinking about and adjusting their relationship to the so-called gender card.

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