Glass Ceilings: Broken for Who?
As I did interview after interview during the Democratic Convention, one topic came up often: the level of excitement amongst convention goers. One question in particular, however, arrived at the core of what I believe is wrong with our national narrative about glass ceilings. I was repeatedly asked if as a woman I felt a particular level of excitement about Hillary Clinton breaking the “ultimate” glass ceiling. My honest answer was no.
Now the obvious conclusion that many would like to draw is that I don’t feel particularly excited because I was (and am) a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter. Sure, there was a lingering sense of disappointment that my preferred candidate didn’t ultimately prevail and that inevitably put a damper on the historic nomination for me, but that reason alone is too simple. My lack of excitement comes from a much deeper, nuanced place of intersections that touch on race, class, gender and our broken political system.
To say Hillary’s nomination isn’t historic or exciting for many people is false. The fact of the matter is that Hillary made history and it’s legitimately exciting to bear witness to the moment (and to know that the Democratic nominee is superior in every way to Donald Trump); however what this actually means for many is an entirely different matter. I have read many a commentary that attempts to boil any dislike or lack of excitement for Hillary to black and white sexism, but that is too simplistic and too intellectually dishonest. To attribute every feeling of disappointment or even dislike to gender bias is to ignore the distinct places from which people are coming from in today’s America.
Today’s America is complicated and messy in ways we have always been, but are now dealing with in very public and often troubling ways. Nationally, we are having very public conversations about race, gender and class that are forcing people across the country to face problems that have been ignored, denied and swept under the rug for decades. And it’s uncomfortable. Conversations about white privilege create an unease in even the most progressive of spaces.
But what we cannot deny is that millions of women of color, and white women living in poverty still do not have political representation in a way that merits their numbers, their influence, or their electoral participation. These are just raw facts. Truth in data. In the same way that Sheryl Sandberg eventually faced legitimate criticism for her development of the “Lean In” culture that very clearly left out an entire segment of the female population who had been leaning in for decades as they bore the burden of making ends meet for themselves, their families and their children, this idea that Hillary represents the ultimate accomplishment for all women deserves the same scrutiny.
The fact of the matter is that women of color still lag far behind their white female colleagues in every aspect of society, including politics and every professional industry. In the history of our country only 31 Black women and 11 Latinas have ever served in Congress, out of the 12,000 people who have served. And the prospects of more representation don’t look fantastic as our political system continues to be dominated by big money, creating an even bigger barrier for women who don’t come to the table with their own money, their own network of wealth, or their own politically influential godfathers who open the doors and pull the strings for them, leaving them further behind.
To be honest and frank about this isn’t to say that Hillary’s nomination isn’t meaningful, but it is to say that her nomination begs the question, and? What does that do for me? What does that do to tear down the very real institutional, cultural and economic barriers that prevent so many women from getting even remotely close to any ceilings much less breaking any of them? There is a certain amount of privilege afforded to white women with wealth that will never be afforded to poor women of color and this isn’t limited to Hillary Clinton.
One of the more formative moments in my political career came when I read Kirsten Gillibrand’s Off the Sidelines. Senator Gillibrand, who is one of the few women who can lay claim to direct and personal mentorship from Hillary Clinton herself, talked about how she made her way into politics and how she was fighting to increase the number of women in politics. I devoured this section of the book because I wanted to know, yes, how does a woman break into this largely male dominant world? Her answer made me sad. Her answer was that at some point she knew she had to increase her political contribution budget. As she did that, she got herself into rooms with powerful politicians, including Hillary herself. So where does that leave the rest of us who can’t afford to buy access? My personal answer was to be dogged in chasing Senator Gillibrand down for an endorsement and to her credit, she put her money where her mouth is and endorsed my last race for Congress and sent me a $5,000 PAC check. But how do we address these barriers in a systemic way?
This is the answer that many women of color are seeking, and who don’t find the answer in Hillary Clinton. What many see in Hillary, unfortunately, is the same system as always that regularly keeps women of color away from the table, and on the menu. And they see the representation of the same Democratic party that depends on women of color year after year in order to win elections, but who don’t see the favors returned when they make the attempt to run for office themselves.
My sincere hope and desire is that Hillary and the system she represents will grow to acknowledge the disparate treatment of women of color and the very real barriers they face. If she directed the Democratic National Committee to immediately invest resources proportionately to consultants of color. If she announced an immediate focus on directing resources to women of color from local races on up. If she said top down doesn’t work and we have to invest from the bottom up, I’m certain we would find some immediate excitement. And I’m certain some would even like her more. And it would have nothing to do with gender or sexism, and everything to do with answering the question, what have you done for me lately?