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The Arc Of History Bends Toward White Women

On the symbolism of Hillary Clinton's presumptive nomination

Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidential nomination. Immediately following her clinching primary victories, the moment and its symbolism got subsumed into one feverish, sentimental version of progressive women’s history in America. That trajectory is best exemplified by an op-ed the New York Times published shortly after Clinton delivered her speech, in which columnist Gail Collins casts Clinton’s win as the teleological end of 18th- and 19th-century suffragist movements. Collins alights on a meaningful coincidence — that Dorothy Rodham, Clinton’s mother, was born on June 4, 1919, the very same day women were granted the right to vote.

That is, the very same day white women were granted the right to vote, I replied, by instinct.

Constant erasure of your experiences and your history trains you to develop that instinct. You learn to validate the existence of your life via rigorous fact-checking. The 19th amendment only effectively enfranchised women who were white with the right to vote, you say whenever the discussion of women’s suffrage comes up in feminist or mainstream circles. The domestic labor black women performed then, and on through Jim Crow, granted white women increased freedom as much as that Amendment, you think. Native Americans didn't vote until 1924, and even after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, many still couldn't vote; the black woman's vote wasn't enforced until decades later, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and other Jim Crow–era restrictions that disenfranchised black women, you offer. You might also point out that the black vote is still threatened today, through various manifestations of voter suppression.

You respond with similar swiftness anytime that other linchpin of political feminism — the pay gap — arises, too. The wage disparity between white women and white men is actually closer than the gap between Latina and white women, you think. You drop increasingly specialized knowledge on the table. Did you know 64,000 black women and girls are missing in America? Did you know murders of black trans women have spiked multifold in the past two years? You use statistical data to justify your particular oppression, even though you could express it more honestly with your emotions. You speak on it in "neutral" terms, turning to the correctives black and brown women tend to know by heart.

The neutrality of numbers can’t always smooth out the feelings of ambivalence and conflict when strides in representation, like that of Clinton's win, don’t completely represent who you are.

And in the wake of that day, the day Clinton became the first female presidential nominee for a major party, the day that everyone around you anointed as a "historic moment for all women," a day you supposedly ought to have celebrated, you want to remind the country that Clinton is white. Not as a slur, which is how whiteness, with all its fragility, hears the saying of its name, and not as some performative retort. But because it’s true, and that matters, just like Obama’s being a black man is relevant to the way his racial identity is received. Back then, the racial symbolism was galvanizing, even considered — if speculatively — a milestone of black mobility. Correlating winning the Oval Office with the general feminist movement is already a dubious and unintellectual equation; the assumption that the progress of white women stands in for the progress of all women is America’s liberal delusion. You’re told you should wake up your daughters so they can witness this historic moment. You’re expected to not only get in line, but to celebrate the symbolism each time. Yet you realize that our daughters will look at Clinton and, once again, see only fragmented reflections.

You think about the significance of dates, specifically the month of June. You wonder why the day an exclusionary movement, the suffragette movement, won its victory is memorialized in relation to Clinton's win, and not Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid 44 years ago. Chisholm became the first black woman to run for that office in 1972, in June. Chisholm laid the path for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but you rarely hear her name.

You consider Clinton’s former position as secretary of state, and you wonder what women in Honduras, women in Iran and in Iraq, women waiting for aid in Haiti, would make of this moment.

You also wonder what the women who have been beneficiaries of her welfare programs would say. You conclude, but you can never really say aloud, that any of these women would advise you to be realistic about the options before you.

In the recent past and as far as you can see in the short future, the arc of history and its consecrating of progressive symbols will bend toward black men and white women. You are a black woman; by virtue of that fact, you are sensible to the point of self-effacement. You resign yourself to this bifurcation, to splitting your identity once more. In 2007, it was your race, and in 2016, it may be your gender — you’re familiar with the practice of breaking yourself in half in service of a greater whole, and you can do so with little ceremony.