Hillary Clinton makes and inherits history

Story highlights

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick: Clinton's bid belongs in the long historical arc of women seeking U.S. presidency
  • Clinton has already cleared many of the obstacles that hindered women in the past, she says

Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in modern American political and intellectual history. She is the author of multiple books, including the recent work "The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the Presidency" (Harvard UP, 2016). Unless otherwise noted, the facts herein reflect her research for that work. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)In a primary season replete with surprises, contradictions and ironies, Hillary Clinton's depiction as a weak contender for the presidency has been a persistent theme, even as she has crossed the threshold of history as the first woman to secure enough delegates to win the nomination of a major political party.

Ellen Fitzpatrick
"She has nothing else going!" Donald Trump said of Clinton in April as he decried her efforts to stoke enthusiasm about the prospect of the nation's first woman president. Critics within her own party have been equally vocal in enumerating her deficiencies on the stump. Predictable enough in a tumultuous campaign season, such judgments may or may not be vindicated when the votes are counted on Election Day. But they ring hollow when one considers Clinton's bid in the long historical arc of women campaigning to be commander in chief.
    From that vantage point, Clinton emerges as an extraordinarily adept political figure. She has already overcome many of the obstacles that derailed every single woman who has sought the presidency before her -- from Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Shirley Chisholm in 1972 to Clinton herself in 2008 and many, many in between.
    In yet another head-spinning reality in 2016, the very assets that permitted her ascendancy have now been cast as fatal flaws and for some even disqualifying weaknesses. What usually counts as success for a presidential contender -- adequate financing, support of party, deep experience, public visibility and a proven record of vote-getting -- morphed into negatives during this primary season when for the first time a truly viable female presidential aspirant had finally achieved them.
    Chief among the barriers for previous female candidates was the ability to finance an effective national presidential campaign. Only the wealthy Victoria Woodhull had the resources to catapult herself to the national stage. Talk about having a cozy relationship with Wall Street! She was a Wall Street broker who drew heavily on her own abundant riches to overcome the formidable obstacles in her way. To ensure favorable media coverage, Woodhull astutely started her own newspaper to promote her candidacy.
    Running for president then, of course, required little of the capital involved in modern campaigns. Her late 20th- and 21st-century successors would find it impossible, no matter what their political party, to compete effectively in an age that required millions of dollars to become and remain a creditable national candidate.
    That changed when Clinton ran in 2008 in a well-financed campaign that brought her extraordinarily close to capturing her party's nomination. While her detractors decry her reliance on "big money," it is unlikely that she would be in the arena without the war chest that has, at last, brought her the delegates to secure her party's nomination.
    Clinton's depiction by her opponents as an old-school party insider likewise casts in sharp relief another of her unique political achievements. Compared with her more than 200 female predecessors who set their sights on the presidency, no woman presidential candidate before Clinton from a major political party has ever managed to garner anywhere near the level of support she has amassed from party elites or from voters.
    For most of American history, party leaders, eyeing widespread resistance to even the idea of a woman commander in chief, were loath to put their money (literally and figuratively) on a losing candidate. Their calculus made it impossible for some of their party's most talented women politicians -- Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and a lauded opponent of Sen. Joe McCarthy, comes to mind -- to gain traction in a national presidential race.
    If 2016 suggests there is no failure like success -- Clinton's accrued superdelegates, for example, have ignited controversy -- it remains true that backing from her party's leadership emerged in no small part from her proven record as a vote-getter. Clinton received more popular votes in the 2008 presidential primary than any candidate -- male or female -- had ever won since such contests began. Neither Clinton nor any other woman presidential contender would be competitive for the Republican or Democratic nomination without the power conveyed by such support from party elites.
    Finally, Clinton has garnered a level of national exposure and recognition unlike any woman before her who sought the presidency. For better or worse, Americans came to know Clinton well as first lady during her husband's two terms as President. Most women presidential candidates before her struggled mightily to muster even a fraction of the public awareness with which Clinton began her political career during her 2000 race in New York for the U.S. Senate.
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    Through the ups and downs of her husband's presidency, her service as a senator and then as secretary of state, Clinton has remained a national political figure in a way that has made her a formidable candidate in two presidential elections. Old school? Establishment? Perhaps. But without that background she wouldn't be where she is today -- the first woman to come within striking distance of the presidency.
    That's the race Clinton has already won. It's a historical reality those who await a "better woman candidate" or a "tougher" political leader may wish to consider when they take the measure of Clinton and the current race.