Chief Political Editor
If Hillary Clinton wins in 2016, her election as this country’s first female president would undoubtedly be a very historic and monumental event.
However, would future generations view a Hillary victory as the signature milestone for women’s rights or as the most significant surmounted hurdle for women in politics as many of her supporters are playing it up to be?
That certainly comes into question for one major reason that has nothing to do with Hillary’s merits – the fact that her husband has already been president. Because of this, if Hillary is elected president, future generations may not necessarily see it as a woman overcoming the odds and being elected to the nation’s highest office – in the same vein as Barack Obama’s election was to African Americans – but would rather have feelings of incredulity as to why the first female president was the husband of one of her predecessors, and would question as to whether her distinguished accomplishment would have been possible without that important connection.
In essence, Hattie Caraway was America’s first Hillary Clinton, as there are many interesting parallels between the two women. Like Clinton, Caraway was from Arkansas (although, unlike Clinton, actually served as a senator from that state instead of carpetbagging), ended up being just as (if not more) accomplished than her political husband, was a Democrat who made women’s rights a focus of her political career, was a cosponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, was a key supporter of the signature achievement of the president of the time (FDR and the New Deal) despite prior disagreements, and is in the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Despite Caraway’s incredible accomplishments, history does not view her as much of a trailblazing figure for women in politics compared to other women who have served in the senate decades after her, like Margaret Chase Smith or Barbara Mikulski. The reason for this is that Caraway, like the majority of other female senators prior to the 1980s, had a husband that already served. History views the fact that the only pathway to the U.S. Senate for most women six decades after gaining the right to vote was to have a deceased former senator as a husband as disappointing rather than groundbreaking, clouding the accomplishments of many great women. It is unfortunate that this reason is why Caraway tends to be glossed over in the illustrious anthology of women in politics.
Compare Caraway’s standing in American history to the enduring legacy of first woman to be elected to the House of Representative, Jeannette Rankin. Rankin only served a total of four years, while Caraway served 13. Nevertheless, Rankin is the woman who has a statue on Capitol Hill, a stage play based on her life, a movie based on that stage play, several books about her life and tenure, and a nonprofit organization that bears her name. On amazon.com, I only found one book written about Caraway. No movies, no plays, not even a poster with an inspiration quote on it.
Rankin, who is among my favorite people to have ever served in Congress, served two terms thirty years apart that happened to take place with votes to send American into World Wars, with her having voted against American entry into both. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration of war on Japan, and is remembered for that more than being the first woman ever elected to Congress. Therefore, the uniqueness of her pacifistic voting record is certainly what helps get her name in the pages of history textbooks more often than Caraway – not just her lack of a husband in Congress (she never got married). However, the fact that she was elected to Congress on her own right, before women even got the right to vote, certainly helps cement her legacy more so than Caraway’s.
The question I am asking from all of this is whether we would want the first woman elected to our highest office have a legacy forever questioned due to her marital connections. When our children and grandchildren are learning about the presidents, do we want one of the most frequent questions asked in American classrooms be “would Hillary have become president without Bill?” Would it really signify progress for women’s rights if part of the first female president’s path to the presidency was by marriage? If history is any lesson, it is clear that Caraway’s election did not constitute significant progress for women’s rights, as it took 35 years after she left the Senate for a woman to get elected to the body without a previous familial connection (Paula Hawkins in 1980).
This phenomenon is not unique to women in the U.S. Senate. The first three female governors of U.S. states had husbands who also held the position before them. It took exactly 50 years between the election of the first female governor (Nellie Tayloe Rose of Wyoming in 1925 who was the widow of a previous governor) for a woman to get elected governor without previously having a husband in that position (Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut in 1975). While having women serve in these positions in the early and mid 20th century is certainly better than having no women serve at all, it is regretful that the first women to overcome this roadblock did so by succeeding their husbands. Repeating this history with the presidency would not send a liberating message to young women wanting to go into public service.
I am not seeking to discredit Hillary at all. I have no doubt that she would still be a significant and powerful person in politics today even if her last name was never Clinton. But despite anything that she has or will accomplish, her connection to Bill will be one of the portions of her biography that current and future U.S. history students will remember first and foremost. For example, more people know that John Quincy Adams was John Adams’s son than anything else about his presidency. Do we really want the same thing to be true with our first female president? Before future Americans read about her tenure as a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and president, they will read about her time as first lady, and her unbreakable connection with Bill.
There are many amazing female politicians who would make a just as good, if not better, Madame President than Hillary. The election of the first female president will be a monumental chapter in American history that will happen sooner rather than later, and I am very excited for that day to come. As Americans and as progressives, we should elect a woman to the position that would reap worldwide praise and little skepticism about the merits of her ascent in American politics. Unfortunately, Hillary would not be this woman, even if it is for a very superficial reason.