Her 1969 Wellesley commencement speech seems so naive now.
Back then, there seemed to be no stopping the idealistic graduate, headed for great things.
“For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible,” Hillary Rodham told fellow graduating seniors. “And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
She looked like the future. Only she was born a couple of decades too soon.
For her entire life, she has symbolized women’s power, and the forces that would limit it. That was true when her public life began almost 50 years ago, and it was true Wednesday, when it almost certainly ended.
It’s worth remembering the woman on whom this nation just took a pass.
As a child, she was often reminded of what girls should and shouldn’t do. She cast off her conservative upbringing and threw herself into liberal causes, becoming a student leader at her all-women’s college. That commencement speech landed her in Life Magazine.
But in her early 20s, she chose a world that was particularly inhospitable for a feminist. She followed her boyfriend and Yale Law School classmate Bill Clinton to Arkansas, binding her ambitions to his, a decision that would have fateful implications for decades to come.
There, she made the first of the many compromises that cut to her core, opening her up to the charges of inauthenticity that would long plague her. When then-Governor Clinton lost his first bid for reelection, she was blamed: She didn’t look Southern enough; she was too much of a feminist. And so she caved, to save his career, and their combined ambitions. She got rid of her glasses, lightened her hair, became Hillary Clinton.
It was an act of self-abnegation she’d repeat over the decades. She didn’t publicly complain, though at times her restlessness with the pose came through. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she said, explaining her decision to pursue a legal career. Remember that?
Demonized for daring to lead health care reform as first lady — subjected to sexist name-calling and breathtaking hatefulness — she gave up, and receded into more traditional first lady duties. Amid the humiliation of her husband’s affairs, she sacrificed her dignity to his political survival.
Was there another path to the presidency? One that didn’t require these concessions? One that didn’t include her husband? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that at every setback, where others might have given up, perhaps leaving the future to a new generation, Hillary Clinton stayed to fight. Of all the spurious criticisms thrown at her this year, the claim that she lacked stamina was the most ludicrous.
That she hung around was her great strength. And her great vulnerability. She stubbornly held to the belief that if only she worked hard enough, made the necessary compromises, and waited, her time would come. Along the way, she became expert in the art of the possible, the politics she had rejected in her youth. She made mistakes, some of them understandable, others mystifying, none of them as bad as her conspiracy-minded critics claimed.
Despite it all, this brilliant woman and gifted collaborator racked up astounding achievements in her own right. But, ascending to the US Senate, she also came to epitomize the establishment. Her time had not yet come. And yet, somehow, it was as if time had passed her by.
It seems only fitting that the woman who had been headed to that moment since Wellesley should have faced a general election opponent so retrograde, so boorish, so sexist, that he could have stepped right out of 1969. For those who might have been inclined to think we’d made more progress, that we had moved beyond the point where a woman president didn’t seem like a big deal (though we’d never actually had one), Donald Trump and his supporters reminded us otherwise. The candidate unleashed a wave of misogyny so open, so profane, that it woke up women who might have been inclined to complacency before. More than Clinton, it was Trump who made gender a central issue of the race.
In this campaign, the cookies-and-tea line that had so bedeviled Hillary Clinton in 1992 became a feminist rallying cry, reclaimed and flashed up on screens at a Cleveland rally Friday night. When Trump called her a “nasty woman” in their last debate, her fans embraced the term, galvanized.
It was finally happening, or so we dreamed. Voting for Hillary Clinton wasn’t just about voting for a woman. Or on women’s issues. It was about defending women, period. And all of the other groups subjected to the hatefulness of this political cycle.
But there weren’t enough of those votes. Or at least, not enough in the right places. Once again, and for the last time, Hillary Clinton was beaten back, by voters who hate her, or hate the idea of powerful women. The old pattern repeated one last time.
Watching her give that beautiful concession speech on Wednesday morning, assuring her supporters, and especially women, that her defeat did not belong to them, it was hard not to think of that young Wellesley grad, poised at the start of a long road, full of power and hope.
“I’ve had successes and I’ve had setbacks,” she said Wednesday. “Sometimes, really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional, public, and political careers — you will have successes and setbacks too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”
Remarkably, she never did.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.