The morning after a shocking electoral defeat, Hillary Clinton, the eyes and television cameras of the nation trained on her, took the stage in New York to deliver her second presidential concession speech. In her 13-minute swan song—no doubt as heartbreaking for her as was for the millions of Americans who voted for her and the millions more she inspired—Mrs. Clinton lamented the durability of the glass barrier she had been butting up against her whole life. “We have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said, “but some day someone will.”
It is indeed lamentable that the United States did not elect its first woman president on November 8. But the fact that Mrs. Clinton lost should not detract from how extraordinarily close to victory she came. The traditional glass ceiling metaphor—a ceiling that “shatters” when a woman wins the presidency—does not do justice to Mrs. Clinton and the extraordinary trail she blazed. In fact, Mrs. Clinton did shatter the glass ceiling—she just did not rise through it.
For a year and a half, Mrs. Clinton allowed America to imagine a woman—not a woman in the abstract, but a specific woman, a woman at least as accomplished and polished as any man to precede her—running the country. She toured the country delivering crowd-rousing speeches and holding intimate roundtable discussions. She showed her poise and her boundless policy expertise on the debate stage. She raised nearly half a billion dollars to fund her White House bid. The first female candidate on the general election ballot, Mrs. Clinton was living, breathing proof of what was possible. Michelle Obama summed up the significance of Mrs. Clinton’s demonstration of female leadership in her speech at the Democratic National Convention: “Because of Hillary Clinton,” the First Lady said, “my daughters—and all our sons and daughters—now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States.”
Mrs. Clinton was not just an example of a woman who could be president, however. She also won the popular vote, a feat that in every election but five has carried the presidency with it. Mrs. Clinton won more than 65 million votes, three million more than her opponent. She is currently leading the popular vote count by two percentage points, a margin larger than that of nine previous presidents—including John F. Kennedy, one of the most charismatic leaders in modern memory. This achievement is staggering given the social stigmas attached to women occupying and seeking high office—many, including Clinton, are skewered as shrill, cold, calculating, and too ambitious. Mrs. Clinton overcame these pernicious barriers to entry to win the hearts, minds and votes of the American people.
In the abstract, the concept of the glass ceiling refers to an invisible barrier that keeps women out of places of power, one fortified by societal expectations of what women can and should do. Mrs. Clinton gave the American people a stellar example of a woman who is qualified to be, capable of being, and nearly became president. In voting for Mrs. Clinton over her opponent by a commanding margin, a plurality of American voters decided to hire her for the job. Not even industrial-strength gorilla glass could withstand such a concerted assault.
The 2016 election’s central tragedy, then, is not who won, but who didn’t. The woman who forced the country to imagine a woman at its helm, who won the people’s election by three million votes, did not herself rise through the cultural barrier she shattered. She was denied the presidency by an anachronistic electoral tally system and about 60,000 ill-advised—and, based on the popular vote tally, out of touch—voters in three Rust Belt states.
When Hillary Clinton conceded on November 9, the sky was gray, the country dismayed—but there was no glass ceiling beyond the clouds. And as Mrs. Clinton herself proclaimed in her nomination speech, “when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” When she wins, the first woman president will have Mrs. Clinton to thank for clearing the way.
Image Credit: Tim Pierce/Flickr