I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong. I’ve spent the last 20 years convinced that electing a woman president would be the key to unlocking the door to women’s equality in the United States. I thought that seeing a woman in the Oval Office would send a powerful signal to women and girls that they, too, can be leaders. With Hillary Clinton’s devastating defeat, it seemed that dream — of a new era of women’s leadership — was deferred.
Rather than a win, it was this epic loss that drove women, first to the streets, and then to the campaign trail in numbers previously unimaginable. Rather than an administration helmed by a woman, it is a White House that largely excludes women and people of color that has electrified the long-stalled movement for women’s leadership — and put us on the verge of a major breakthrough.
From historic state and local wins in the 2017 elections, to the unprecedented number of women running, and gearing up to run, nationally this year; from the powerful testimony of the #MeToo movement, to Hollywood’s audacious, inclusive new Time’s Up campaign — the year since the Women’s March has felt genuinely earth-shattering. And it raises an uncomfortable question: Would the same be true if Clinton had won?
It seems counterintuitive, and yet recent history suggests that the victories of pathbreaking leaders like President Barack Obama and Germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel — while powerfully symbolic — do not usher in sweeping cultural change by themselves. That does not — as some have suggested — reflect a failure of individual leadership, but rather the reality that, as historian Peniel Joseph wrote of Obama, “no one person — no matter how powerful — can single-handedly rectify structures of inequality constructed over centuries.” That power lies with the people, or more precisely, with organized communities engaging in collective action. Unfortunately, once in office, symbolic leaders like Obama and Merkel can have the opposite effect, giving their supporters the impression that the most important battle is already won, even as deeper systemic issues remain unaddressed.
The past year has reminded us that people organize when faced with a common threat. Or, as Hillary Clinton herself once put it, “Sometimes it takes adversaries and opposition to bring out the best in us.” This is true of the last century’s most transformative social movements. The horrors of Jim Crow gave rise to the victories of the civil rights movement. The Vietnam War galvanized a generation’s social activism, engagement, and scrutiny of government. The AIDS epidemic gave urgency and organization to an awakening gay rights movement, building the infrastructure that would ultimately win the battle for marriage equality in Massachusetts, and later, nationwide.
So it should perhaps come as no surprise that the dashed hopes of 2016 — and the elevation of a dangerous bigot to the nation’s highest office — has mobilized women across the country to take charge of this generation’s burgeoning social justice movements.
The depth and breadth of this activism gives me renewed hope for what lies ahead. Out of hardship has come a growing mandate for change, and the resources and resilience to achieve it. When America does finally elect a woman president, she will be much more than a symbol. She will have been, in all likelihood, one of multiple women contenders on the debate stage, and one of many more women in positions of leadership in every sector, and at every level. She will be carried by a movement — not compelled to carry one on her shoulders.
These are dark and disturbing times for so many, and yet, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” And so, we will keep marching, as the suffragists proclaimed, forward into light.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Family Foundation.