If Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had lived to see the madness of the 2016 presidential election, they would have been dismayed — but not surprised — at the rough road Hillary Clinton has traveled.
Paul and Burns were organizers of the landmark parade for women’s suffrage held March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C., the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president. The event, which drew 8,000 marchers to Pennsylvania Avenue, was designed to get attention, with 20 floats, nine bands, and four mounted brigades.
The parade began peacefully, but was soon blocked by hordes of mostly male counterprotestors. Yelling and jeering, bottle- and rock-throwing, ensued. Some marchers were physically assaulted. More than 100 parade participants were hospitalized.
But the cuts and bruises suffered that day were not in vain. Newspaper coverage of the violence spurred outrage and helped galvanize popular support for women to gain the right to vote. Seven years after the melee, the 19th Amendment was ratified. Women lined up by the thousands to vote in the 1920 presidential election, which saw Republican Warren G. Harding defeat Democrat James M. Cox.
Looking back at the past 18 months, Clinton has been forced to march through her own angry mob hurling blatant displays of sexism and misogyny during her historic campaign for the presidency. But history isn’t made in a vacuum. It’s no coincidence that Clinton’s ascent coincided with the emergence of an opponent who barreled through the pack of Republican contenders on the strength of shock value. Donald Trump’s appeal has been rooted in stoking fear, sowing the seeds of cultural division, and promoting a kind of tribalism desperate to salvage the fast-fading establishment in which the rule of white men is unchallenged and unchecked by anyone who doesn’t look much or think much like Trump.
His shoot-from-the-lip approach to campaigning brought the discourse in the primary and general election campaigns to an embarrassingly crude and sophomoric level. At a time when Clinton’s candidacy should be the embodiment of all that women have achieved, the gender issues considered in this campaign have instead focused on one man’s obsession with battling “nasty” women. Instead of talking about Clinton’s policy proposals, we’re talking about her physical stamina.
The angry “us against them” rhetoric of Trump and his supporters created a funnel for a terrifying level of anger expressed at all manner of undeserving targets. I’ve never been so scared about the state of my country as when I was standing in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena during the Republican National Convention while hundreds of delegates shook fists and chanted “Lock her up!”
Equating policy differences to criminal activity is not new to politics, unfortunately, but it took on new fury in this election cycle, with the hate and venom magnified by the 24/7 echo-chamber of social and partisan media.
There were other jaw-dropping expressions of pure misogyny aimed at Clinton on display during the four-day Republican fete that should have outraged decent men and women, regardless of politics. The message on one political button sold by an enterprising vendor: “KFC Hillary Special: Two fat thighs, two small breasts, one left wing.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s checkered past with women brought the issue of sexual harassment and assault front and center to the campaign. Like a rabid dog backed into a corner, Trump tried to counter the evidence of his unconscionable treatment of women by reviving decades-old allegations of rape and sexual harassment aimed at Bill Clinton. As if Hillary’s candidacy should be defined by accusations hurled at her husband.
These bare-knuckle tactics have brought daily expressions of disbelief and disgust from voters, politicians, and journalists who have seen an election or two. Nobody has been the voice of decency more than CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. After a half-century of covering presidential campaigns, Schieffer declared at the end of the second Clinton-Trump debate: “I just hope to God I don’t see another campaign like this one.”
The sheer ugliness of the final weeks of the campaign has taken a mental toll on even the most ardent political junkies. To get to where she is, Clinton has had to endure the most undignified campaign ever waged for the Oval Office. She’s had to roll around in mud, grit her teeth in the face of invectives hurled at her and her family, and generally had to shout to be heard on serious issues amid the circus surrounding Trump.
It’s a shame that these were the socio-political conditions that will likely produce the first female president. But as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns realized a century ago, no matter how down-and-dirty things got, the ultimate victory was well worth the street fight.