Clinton's Run, My Seminar On Sexism

By Sarah Odell
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hillary Rodham Clinton followed me to college, and it was through her run for office that I learned what even Wellesley couldn't teach me: that I am, in fact, a feminist, and that it's a label that matters now more than ever.

I started my freshman year at Clinton's alma mater in the fall of 2006, after spending the spring semester of my high-school senior year interning in her Senate office. When Clinton announced that she was running for president in January 2007, I expected the campus to be energized and to support one of Wellesley's own. My expectations hit the reality of midterms, papers, sports practice and everything else that consumes a college schedule. We formed a Wellesley Students for Hillary group, but the campus as a whole didn't do much else to acknowledge her historic campaign.

Still, I never considered myself a feminist -- and wasn't even sure what that word meant for someone like me, born in 1987. It seemed obvious that women who excelled in business became chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and that a 60-year-old woman who had worked hard as a lawyer and had spent a productive term in the Senate could become president. Gender didn't hinder women, so I didn't need to be a feminist.

Except, maybe I did.

One night, I happened to catch a clip of Chris Matthews's MSNBC analysis after the first Democratic debate. His opening comment on Clinton's performance wasn't about her health care policy or her Iraq plan. He wanted to start with her necklace: "First of all, her pearls, Grace Kelly, dynamite." Matthews's wisdom on pearls was just one in a wave of sexist comments that would wash over Clinton throughout the primary season.

I'd like to believe that if any group of women in college would be concerned about gender issues, it would be my classmates. But Wellesley students didn't necessarily behave any differently from the millions of college-aged women across the country who by and large supported Sen. Barack Obama. My peers look at our mothers and think, "You told us we could do anything we want, so why should I support a woman just because she's a woman?" At least that's how I think the script goes.

I saw my own classmates display unbridled excitement toward Clinton only once, really, when she came to campus last November to kick off her youth-voter outreach. She shared stories of her time at the school, including one about a visit she made to Harvard Law School when she was trying to decide between Harvard and Yale Law. She recalled being introduced by a friend to a professor there. "This is Hillary Rodham," her friend said. "She's deciding between us and our nearest competitor." The Harvard professor peered at her from behind his glasses, Clinton said, and replied, "We don't have a nearest competitor, and we don't need any more women." The audience gasped.

But after Clinton left, reality set in. Most of the campus went from that collective gasp at what had happened not so long ago to what seemed like a collective shrug about a woman running for president right now. But why?

Luckily, I could put this question to an expert: Gloria Steinem.

She spoke at Wellesley in February, about a month after publishing an op-ed in the New York Times calling gender "probably the most restricting force in American life." I asked her why young women seemed to reject their mothers' ideals. Young women tend to be more conservative than their mothers, Steinem replied. As they get older, they lose power. That is, she said, a very radicalizing experience.

But I don't have to wait until I'm my mother's age to undergo that radicalizing experience. It happened this year.

Sarah Odell will be a junior at Wellesley in the fall.

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