Hillary Clinton's Endless Fight

Gender issues remain unsolved, still.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Hillary Clinton didn't speak for very long at the 10th anniversary celebration for the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., Thursday night, but there was something poignant in her remarks, even as she showered the assembled past and future leaders of the group with praise. It wasn't just the question of whether progressives have the power to enact their agenda during a time of record partisanship in which a united Republican-led House opposes them. Clinton said:

We may have different experiences and backgrounds, but we share a set of values that animates our work and our lives. The values of justice and freedom, of opportunity and equality, that everyone the world over deserves to have in their lives—and in their societies—to have the chance to live up to their god-given potential, to participate fully in the economic, political, social lives of the places where they are born and live.

And so when you look at these values and how much the United States had to do in thrusting them into human history and nurturing them and protecting them for so many years now, it's always a little surprising that we have to keep fighting so hard on behalf of them, to make the case over and over and over again.

It seemed exactly like what someone who is both a staunch global advocate of women's rights and the former secretary of state would say. But it was also hard not to look up at the stage at Hillary—two decades into her career as a single-named force of nature, an emissary from the generation that still wears power suits instead of trendy sleeveless power dresses, a veteran of the cohort that first enacted the idea of women's equality in the public sphere through their own life choices—and feel her talking a little about what she's seen over the course of her journey from feminist pioneer to elder stateswoman.

On the question of gender equality in particular, the feminists and first-wave professionals of Clinton's generation thought we'd be so much farther along now than we are. And yet all over the world and all over Washington—at conferences and meetings and in nonprofit meeting rooms—that struggle in particular endures.

Instead of being a battle fought once, the fight for women's equality in public life turned out to be a battle that needs fighting again and again, as deep human patterns of dominance and social control frustratingly reasserted themselves anew and in fresh guises, in defiance of earlier efforts to address them. We have not yet figured out ways of organizing societies to redress the natural tendency toward inequality between men and women that's as effective as democracy is in seeking to redress the naturally occurring inequality between man and man.

Different nations have tried different approaches, but none have solved the riddle. The utopians of Clinton's optimistic generation thought many of the great social-equality battles, once won in theory, would have been settled in practice by now. But they are far from it. And there Clinton was—on stage, adored by the crowd—soldiering on in a fight that may have no end.