Clinton's Real Victory

By Marie Wilson
Saturday, June 7, 2008

"I am here because of Hillary Clinton."

Over the past few months, that phrase has been repeated to me by hundreds of women you've never met but whose names you may one day recognize. They are this country's next generation of female leaders -- women of all ages and persuasions who have been searching for the means and encouragement to step into positions of leadership in their communities; women of all political affiliations who thank Hillary Clinton for making the impossible finally appear possible.

As someone who trains women across the country to lead across all sectors, it has been easy for me to see, firsthand, the impact of Clinton's candidacy. I have watched over the past year as women in the mining towns of Minnesota's Iron Range and urban centers such as Atlanta and Denver have stepped forward as never before to lead. It's a mistake to suggest that women's political leadership will be crippled by Clinton's loss in the Democratic presidential nomination race. In fact, I believe that the end of her candidacy will eventually rank as a modest disappointment when measured against her larger wins -- which include what has been revealed to us about the often invisible political aspirations of women and how we can leverage their talent and passion to bring about change at all levels of government.

Already, the political pipeline promises a bevy of "women to watch" -- governors (Arizona's Janet Napolitano, Kansas's Kathleen Sebelius and Alaska's Sarah Palin) U.S. senators (Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota) and other elected officials who are seen as next in line. Our country has a wealth of dedicated, intelligent, politically savvy women who are ready to take their leadership to the next level. Through their example, they will continue to inspire others.

But it's not just the women already near the top who demonstrate the impact of Clinton's historic run. The real and long-term effect of her candidacy can be seen in the burgeoning movement of women at the grass-roots level who are working to alter our political landscape. They are the retiring teachers who want to amplify their good works in the community; the recent college graduates determined to transform the world around them; the seasoned factory workers who want their voices to finally be heard. These women may not be on our national radar, but they are changing the face and voice of American leadership as surely as Hillary Clinton has. She has shifted cultural perceptions of what a leader looks like.

The fact that we now have women at the top and the bottom levels of politics across this country is no accident of fate -- it is the result of decades and decades of work and ambition. And it is a strategic imperative if we are to have a truly representative democracy, one in which women of all colors and from all communities lead in equal numbers alongside their male peers.

As more women enter the political pipeline at all levels, the quality and character of our political institutions will be better off for their participation. They will increasingly reflect the diverse nature of our nation's experiences and embody the richness of our collective visions for change.

Clinton's candidacy has brought unprecedented visibility to women's leadership. We may at times have disagreed with her campaign tactics, her voting record or her political maneuverings. And her candidacy did highlight certain fissures between women of different racial, generational and political backgrounds. But whether we liked Clinton the person or Clinton the candidate pales in comparison with this unassailable truth: Her candidacy has helped change the political game forever.

Now it's up to the rest of us to do our part -- by encouraging women's leadership in every shape and form. We do that by inviting our female friends and relatives to take the next step in their political lives by running for office, big or small. We do that by being brave enough to run for office ourselves. We do that by supporting the female candidates who do run for office -- not simply because they are women but because they are just as qualified as their male peers to bring about the changes we seek.

This race does not end with Hillary Clinton's campaign. By helping to fill the pipeline with a critical mass of diverse, well-equipped women, Clinton's candidacy has changed everything about the future of leadership in this country. And that is a legacy of which she -- and our nation -- should be proud.

The writer is founder and president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to advance women's leadership.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company