WASHINGTON, D.C.—They were a bunch of Hillary Clinton fangirls, the women who filed into the Woman’s National Democratic Club here last week to volunteer for the Democratic nominee. Phones pressed to their ears for hours, they dialed hundreds of residents of North Carolina and Ohio to make sure the Democrats on the other end of their lines would vote.
Their efforts—and the recent door-knocking some had done in swing states like Pennsylvania, and the return trips others planned for the upcoming weekend—were all in service to a candidate they feel duty-bound to defend: not only a woman who could be the nation’s first to serve as president, but a candidate who looks, thinks, lives, and talks kind of like them.
“I want someone to be president who understands me, who understands what it feels like to be a woman in today’s world, to have to deal with the barriers that we’ve had to face and has broken down so many of those barriers,” 27-year-old volunteer Jamie Whalen told me Wednesday night. “I want my kids to be able to say one day—if I have kids—to think that they can also be president, too. It means a lot to see the person in the highest office be someone who looks like you.”
Clinton’s support among Washingtonians is expected. This is a town where high achievers like Clinton are glorified, where new acquaintances are more likely to ask “Who do you work for?” than “How’re you doing?”, and where status seekers and do-gooders are difficult to distinguish from one another. It’s not all that surprising that dozens of ostensibly loyal Democrats would turn out for their party’s nominee—to make some calls so they could say they helped out a potential future president.
Yet for many of the women I talked to Wednesday—the government workers, think-tankers, and nonprofit employees—Clinton isn’t just an aspirational figure, though she’s that, too. Rather, they seemed to see Clinton in the late days of the campaign as something of an avatar, a living representation of their own daily striving against a culture and a professional world that privileges men. When they watch her face “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts, suggestions that she is too frail or weak to assume the presidency, and other examples of blatant sexism, they recall their own, similar experiences. And when they see her succeed, it’s edifying.
Maybe, though, it’s more accurate to describe Clinton as a metaphor, as one volunteer suggested to me between phone calls—“for my grandmother, who didn’t live to see this day” and for “my goddaughter, who’s this tween coming up, and everything in between.” Robin Diamond, 54, said she planted her “I Voted Early” sticker to a 1916 photo of her grandmother in her Girl Scout uniform, a woman who’d marched with the suffragettes before women had the right to vote. “That was really emotional and really meaningful,” said Diamond, who worked for the federal government when Clinton’s husband was in the Oval Office.
The Clinton campaign would doubtless be delighted to hear these women discuss their boss this way. After all, their targeting of women voters this past year has been overt, from frequent mentions of her grandchildren to pointed ads about Trump’s low esteem for women—including one with a girl-power tag line: “Mr. Trump, women are going to be the reason you’re not elected to be president.”
Clinton’s overtures to women have been all the more explicit the last few weeks of the campaign, following revelations about Trump’s treatment and alleged sexual assault of women.
“I guess the bottom line is he thinks belittling women makes him a bigger man. And I don’t think there’s a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” Clinton told rally-goers last Monday in swing-state Florida, putting a hand to her heart. “He doesn’t see us as full human beings with our own dreams, our own purposes, our own capabilities. And he has shown that clearly throughout this campaign. Well, he is very wrong. He is wrong about both the women and the men of this country. He has shown us who he is. Let us on Tuesday show him who we are.”
Many, though certainly not all, of the women at Wednesday’s phone bank appeared to represent a demographic Clinton needs: college-educated white women, a voting bloc my colleague Ronald Brownstein predicted in 2015 would be Clinton’s “greatest political strength.” Analyzing then-recent polling from February 2015, he wrote: “The big opening signaled by these polls is her opportunity to recover from Obama’s 2012 trough among college-educated white women. That’s an especially ominous prospect for Republicans because those upscale women have steadily increased their share of the electorate since the 1980s. .... Clinton’s biggest boost over Obama might come from nothing more complex than consolidating her most natural supporters.”
The presence of this bloc at the phone bank shouldn’t be given too much predictive weight; these women—as well as the women of color and men volunteers—are from a blue-voting region, and are clearly politically engaged already, whether by choice or profession. But in the aggregate, the energy of the Clinton supporters working Wednesday could at least soothe a worried campaign—if only because they trained their enthusiasm on the swing-state voters and others they spent time calling last week.
The volunteers sat around circular tables in the cream-colored ballroom of the club, an organization founded two years after women’s suffrage and headquartered in a 19th century mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Occasionally jumping up to grab new lists of numbers from event organizers, the mostly female volunteers began to fill the room by 6:15 p.m., though within the hour a line formed out the door and organizers set up overflow tables near the parlor.
Soon-to-be volunteers waiting in line to check in were flanked by first ladies: a cardboard cutout of Clinton standing on their left and a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, a former member of the club, hanging at the wall on their right. Roosevelt broadcast radio addresses here as first lady, and its library is named after her. So is the organization’s Eleanor Award for humanitarian work, which was bestowed for the first time upon Clinton herself.
In some ways, the club seems to epitomize the trappings of establishment Washington so negatively associated with Clinton. Operating as part political organization, part speakers’ forum, part social club, it has a blue-blood lineage that would probably alienate the Bernie Sanders supporters who during the primary railed against Clinton’s ties to the elite.
But there’s nevertheless something that feels subversive about women organizing politically, no matter their partisan affiliation—as if they’re trying to push as far away and as fast as they can from a time when women were excluded from American politics even more so than they are now.
“What the founding members wanted, and what Eleanor supported, was getting women involved in the political process,” Anna Fierst, a former club president and great-granddaughter of Roosevelt’s, told The Washington Post earlier this year. “Women are so charged with this campaign,” Nuchhi Currier, the club’s current president, told me. “It’s taken us—how many?—94 years to get to this place where there might be, there will be—we’re trying to make sure there will be—a woman president in the White House.”
In the ballroom, tucked into a corner, was 36-year-old Stephanie Schmid, one of several volunteers I spoke with that’s seen Clinton operate up close. (Two others had, between them, witnessed Clinton at a health-care reform hearing in the early 1990s (the men “had it in for her from day freaking one!”) and at a hearing on the No Child Left Behind Act soon after Clinton joined the Senate (“she was so effective and so knowledgeable and so on target”).
I spotted Schmid, who works in the State Department, because of her t-shirt, which said in stark letters: “Proud to Be a Nasty Woman,” a nod to Trump’s comment at the last debate that Schmid’s former boss is nasty herself. Schmid was working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, at a U.S. embassy on elections promotion when Clinton visited in October 2012. “She walked right up to me, shook my hand, and said: ‘Stephanie, I just want to let you know I appreciate all your hard work here in Haiti, and [top aide] Cheryl [Mills] has been telling me great things about you and it hasn’t gone unnoticed,’” said Schmid, who hadn’t expected the then-secretary of state to know her name. “To me,” that interaction “sort of just encapsulates who she is as a person and who she is as a boss.”
There wasn’t much talk of the various Clinton-related email scandals or other controversies that have dogged her campaign. Even those who supported her rival, Bernie Sanders, in the primary could give elevator pitches detailing why they back her now. Their only harsh words were reserved for Donald Trump, whose sexist behavior the volunteers I spoke with universally condemned.
“I didn’t want her to have to win against someone like that but that’s the reality that we live in right now,” Whalen told me. “Someone who just has absolutely no respect for people like me. And I want to do everything I can to make sure someone like that doesn’t get anywhere near the White House.” Others felt similarly: As the campaign came to a close, volunteering for Clinton felt like catharsis, a way to relieve some of the stress the election—and lately, tightening polls—had caused. And in some ways it felt like an obligation: “The day after Election Day, if it isn’t the outcome that I want and I didn’t put in my time and do my part, that would be a horrible feeling,” 22-year-old Simone Holzer told me. “And [I] would have to live with that for the next four years.”
I caught Aletheia Donald, a 26-year-old economist, as the phone bank wrapped up and organizers began passing out candy as a thank you. She said the prospect of Clinton serving as the first woman president convinced her to investigate the candidate further and, once she liked what she saw, volunteer.
“I see in her the fight of every woman,” Donald said, “who’s struggled to make herself heard in a room full of men.”
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