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 Women leaders sexism politics copyClockwise from top left: Tiffany Dufu, Hon. Kathy Hochul, Karen Hunter, Gloria Steinem, Christine Quinn, Sonia Ossorio. Image via Hunter College Roosevelt House symposium webpage

Last night, an esteemed panel met in New York to discuss the questions we’ve been asking non-stop since the election: 

How did Clinton lose? And how do women win?

The panel was part of a Hunter College symposium on the role sexism played in the election, which, while it has been acknowledged, has been underrecognized in the conversations around what went wrong (Why didn’t Clinton go to the states that mattered? Why did she focus on negative campaigning? But her E-M-A-I-L-S).

Six inspiring women met before an auditorium packed with women: feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem; Lieutenant Governor of New York, the Hon. Kathy Hochul; President of NOW-NYC (National Organization for Women in New York), Sonia Ossorio; President of WIN (Women in Need) and former Speaker of the NYC Council, Christine Quinn; Chief Leadership Officer of Levo and author of Drop the Ball, Tiffany Dufu; and moderator, lecturer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Hunter.

Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab opened the night with a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.” It was an apt precursor for the discussions of strength and perseverance to come.

There was fierce agreement that women in politics (not to mention everywhere) are held to a higher standard than men, that Clinton had been held to a higher standard than Trump. Women were expected to be “perfect,” to strike a near-impossible balance between feminine and strong. And the longer women walked that tightrope, the more ammunition builds against them. President of NOW-NYC Ossorio disagreed that Clinton had been the wrong candidate — “she was the most qualified candidate ever!” — but said Clinton had spent too long walking that unfair rope.

Senator Hillary Clinton 2003Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2003 (via Department of Defense)

But why have other countries had women break that highest, hardest glass ceiling while the US has not? “We like to think of ourselves as forward-thinking people,” said Dufu. “But here in the US we still live in the 50s, we still see women as homemakers.” Ossorio concurred, pointing out that “we as a nation are still uncomfortable with powerful women. Powerful women are seen as an aberration.” We struggle to elevate them when it matters. “Why do women have to lose before we celebrate them?” asked Dufu, in one of the most painfully poignant questions of the night.

“Until men are raising children as much as women, women will remain the childhood authority,” said Steinem. “Men feel regressed when they see a powerful woman in public because they last saw one when they were 8.”

There was no shortage of firsthand experience of such difficulties amongst the panel. Christine Quinn became the first woman and first openly gay speaker of the NYC Council in 2006, but lost her bid to become the first female mayor of New York in 2013. Quinn is boldly outspoken, but even she found herself bending to the campaign pressure of trying to strike that perfect balance between strong and feminine. It wasn’t like she had been told to act a certain way, she said; it was more subtle than that. “I wish I had said ‘I am this big, pushy, dykey lesbian.’ You may as well be yourself at the end of the day... Being authentic is really hard in private and really had in public- but it’s a hell of a lot more fun being yourself, win or lose.”

Christine QuinnChristine Quinn in 2008 (via Wikipedia Commons)

The Hon. Kathy Hochul had struggled with confidence: at 35, she hadn’t been sure if she was qualified to run, despite being far more qualified than the young men in their 20s throwing their hands up. It was seeing these overconfident men, with “nothing to offer but their confidence,” that had propelled her into her successful political career. It was they who were right though, not she, she admitted. She wanted to see more 21-year-old women with those men’s confidence. “Women are tough! I mean, who’s tougher than us?” she said, to a full round of applause.

Steinem, who had received a standing ovation from the panel as she entered, also pointed out that it had been the perfect storm (referencing the one brewing around us) of random, shitty circumstances stacked against HRC: the end of two democratic terms, a low voter turnout (lower than in India), a flawed electoral college, and the “invisible tube” that an unforeseen, untested billionaire candidate like Trump was able to come up through. But, she said, it was also a vote for the past. She later discussed how the backlash against feminism had been growing ever more fervent since the consciousness-raising days of the ‘70s.

Gloria Steinem copyGloria Steinem (via Gloria Steinem website)

The panel did not shy away from the fact that women were responsible for this outcome too.

“This is white woman’s burden,” said Steinem, when questioned on the fact that 53% of white women had voted for Donald Trump (though she was quick to acknowledge it was actually only 49%- “not that I’m quibbling,” she laughed). But there was also plenty of sympathy and attention paid to the reasons why these women might have done so.

“I thought long and hard about the women who voted for Trump,” said Ossorio. “It’s kind of a luxury to be really offended by his crassness, by him being a misogynist. There are women who wonder ‘Am I going to be able to afford groceries, is he going to come home drunk tonight and hit me?’ Something needed to change.”

But the panel stopped short of agreeing with an audience question as to whether Trump supporters could be feminists.

“It’s impossible to be a feminist and approve of those things,” said Quinn. “Being a feminist means you believe in a society where all humans are treated equally.” But they still believed they were worthy of support. Dufu was committed to all women, whether she considered them feminists or not, and she said she knew some of those women needed her help most of all. “I am here to help all women, even Trump supporters.”

The panel, many of whom work for projects that encourage women to run for office (such as the White House Project), also had plenty of advice for women looking to run. Women need to believe in themselves, they have to be tough and ready to handle a vicious environment, and they must be true to themselves. If they don’t feel they have what it takes, women should throw their support behind those who do.

Hochul assured women not to be afraid. Losing “doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger," she said. "I don’t know anyone stronger than Hillary, than Chris, than me. Chris got back in the game, using her talents, and I’m sure Hill will too.”

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