Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an author and assistant professor of history at The New School. The views expressed here are her own.
It felt like a new era for women and feminism. Beyoncé sashaying — or rather, slaying — in front of larger-than-life letters spelling out "FEMINISM"; nudge-nudge, wink-wink onscreen references to same-sex female desire morphing into the unvarnished and acclaimed Orange Is the New Black
, and a growing number of colleges piloting "SlutWalks" and affirmative-consent policies.
Until it didn’t. On Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton, arguably the most qualified presidential candidate ever (and also the first female nominee for a major party), lost her historic bid to Donald Trump. An outsider with no political experience, multiple bankruptcies, and a dodgy relationship with the law and the truth, Trump ultimately bested Clinton in a move that was both utterly stunning and not surprising at all: Have you
ever seen a more qualified woman passed over for a man with less experience?
To add insult to injury, Trump’s rise to the highest office in the land also came in spite of — or more frighteningly, because of — his overt misogyny, from boasting of sexual assault to gleefully fat-shaming and maligning women as dogs and pigs (of course, with the exception of his darling daughter Ivanka, whom he has fondly referred to as a “piece of ass").
And then there’s the policy piece. Trump’s dismissal of sexual harassment, cavalier declaration that he would prosecute women who had abortions, and VP selection of Mike Pence, who has made a career of criminalizing living while female (or gay), promise only to worsen persistent issues that affect women, such as the wage gap, domestic violence, and sexual assault.
But perhaps the most surprising turn of events was the exit-poll data: Despite the pretensions of sisterhood across racial and party lines that briefly glimmered in reaction to Trump's notorious "nasty woman" and pussy-grab quotes, that solidarity flamed out at the ballot box. Women showed up for Clinton 54% over 42% for Trump
, a margin that reflects Obama’s lead both in 2008 and 2012, but that lead was driven by women of color — black women in particular voted 95% for Hillary as opposed to a paltry 34% among white women
. The many deflating, demoralizing dimensions of the main event, however, are offset by other electoral wins for women
: The number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled and in Oregon, Kate Brown — the first openly LGBTQ person to be elected as governor — is committed to standing as a role model for sexual diversity: “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.
It’s hard to know what to make of all this. This is a complicated time because the history of women and the feminist battles that got us here are similarly complex; there’s no straight line from fighting for suffrage to free love to filling the Oval Office. Women have fiercely disagreed, often with one another, about how to realize the goal of gender equality, and the list ahead begins to tell that messy story — emphasizing the tensions between them as much as their sisterhood.
Click through to explore 100 years of feminism through the words of 30 incredible women.