Even when Hillary wins, she loses: In Iowa, I saw plenty of excitement for Clinton, too — but Sanders' surge is still the big news

Clinton's Iowa victory, narrow as it is, is a huge step for women—and that's not enough to be the party's future?

Published February 3, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2016.   (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2016. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic caucus in Iowa last night by a very slim margin. It is not a state demographically friendly to Clinton and it is exceptionally and unusually kind to Bernie Sanders. Forty-three percent of likely democratic caucus-goers identify as socialists, as Sanders has. Clinton overcame that and the historic structural bias against women and won. For the first time in the history of the caucus, a woman won. Though Clinton is often portrayed as “more of the same” and “establishment,” as opposed to the "exciting" socialism of Sanders, there is in fact nothing the same or establishment about that victory. In fact, how close we are in this country to having the first woman as the presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties is, after 240 years of the republic and 44 male presidents, a revolution. Even Sanders supporters should see this is an important step forward for women and girls, for feminists, and indeed for the entire country.

The Democratic campaign I spent the last few days on the ground in Iowa observing is strikingly different than the curated images of the campaigns and narrative that the media continues to advance. It’s not all young people “feeling the Bern” and all bougie feminists rooting for Hillary. One millennial working for Clinton is Jackson Menner in Des Moines, who might be mistaken at first glance for a Bernie Bro. His Twitter feed is full of photos of Clinton and the high-profile supporters who came out for her in Iowa: Madeleine Albright, Gabby Giffords and civil rights hero John Lewis. Lewis canvassed to get out the caucus for Hillary in Davenport yesterday, telling campaign workers that being involved in Clinton’s campaign meant “you're getting into good trouble, necessary trouble." The reality is that many distinctions between Clinton and Sanders are more subtle than “establishment” vs. “rebel” — and for certain, all feminists are not aligned with her, nor are all young voters aligned with him.

As a feminist, Hillary’s victory is heartwarming to me, and it’s good to be warm in Iowa as the blizzard rolls in today. Hillary is hit often for being wonky, for not being folksy and for not being likable enough — the curse of being the smartest girl in the class. Sanders is praised for being irascible, for disregarding convention and having messy hair and wearing a fairly inexpensive suit. The eye of the needle we allow women candidates to thread is perhaps impossibly narrow. I don’t believe that electing any woman just for the sake of gender would be a good idea — but I do believe that electing a progressive Democrat who is a woman, like Hillary Clinton is, is an important move for feminists. And for certain it seemed important to many of the people on the ground in Iowa working for Clinton. Volunteers from around the state were joined by many who came in from out of state at their own expense to work for her not just because she is a woman, but yes, in part because of that.

I asked Quinn Symond of Mason City, Iowa, a volunteer who runs the “Iowa for Bernie” Twitter account, if he is a feminist. He wanted to know, “Can I be honest without being slaughtered?”

“As a single dad I've felt the sting of unequal rights for men,” said Symond. “I do not like words like ‘feminism.’”

Yet some Iowa feminists stand strongly in support of Sen. Sanders. One is 51-year-old Laura Hubka of Riceville. “I think as a feminist that these issues are more important to me: healthcare, equal pay and family leave,” she told me.

“That is something that Bernie talked about for many years and has stood for his entire career,” Hubka added. “I do not hate Hillary, and though I know she has stood by on these issues, I see that money coming in from Wall Street and big pharma. I know that there will be expectations from Secretary Clinton. Not all those expectations will be in my favor as a woman.”

Here in Iowa, 57 percent of the Democratic caucus voters were women. Of those, about 55 percent voted for Hillary. Many women were visibly moved by meeting Clinton and by the power of having a woman so close to becoming the nominee and by the centuries of history she is changing. I talked to women grinning from ear to ear, women choking back tears, little girls with awestruck looks on their faces as they stared at Clinton, or later recalled seeing her. In 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro was the nominee for vice president and lost, they told us, “Don’t worry, now that that’s happened, more women will be in these positions and by the turn of the century we’ll have a woman president. It’s all going to change now.” Thirty-two years later, maybe it finally is.

In an essay here in Salon after the 2012 election, I lamented our lack of excitement about the possibility of electing a woman, writing that “electing a woman advances the nation in many of the same ways that electing Obama did. It changes what girls and women see in the mirror. It changes what we think about when we think about women. We add president to the list of associations with the word along with all those commonplace associations: wife, mother, entertainer, bitch. It changes our notion of what power and leadership are.”

Why aren’t we more excited about that? Or are we?

At Clinton’s victory celebration at Drake University in Des Moines last night, the people cheering in their “I’m With Her” T-shirts let their excitement be known. The popular media seems more interested in covering how “exciting” the campaign of Bernie Sanders is, now that he and Hillary almost tied in Iowa. But isn’t the nomination of a woman moving within reach exciting, too?

And should excitement be a political metric? Whose excitement? Does the media really mean young, mostly white people’s excitement? After all, white men don’t run the table anymore. Excitement over Hillary’s support from groups as varied as Planned Parenthood, workers’ unions, LGBT rights groups and disability rights advocates is downplayed.

Meanwhile, the circus has left Iowa for New Hampshire. Here in Des Moines, we are waiting for snow to start falling on Groundhog Day. The media is clearing out. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire is the face of the country, and it does seem wrong that we lead our Democratic nominating process with white Iowa and white New Hampshire. Iowa and New Hampshire matter so much because of how the media narrative is shaped coming out of those contests. But we should be crafting a better, more inclusive narrative, no matter whom we support — a narrative inclusive of race, class and gender. A narrative we can all be excited about.

By Anna March

Anna March’s writing appears frequently here in Salon as well as in The New York Times' Modern Love column, New York Magazine and The Rumpus. She is the Publisher of the magazine Roar. Her essay collection, "Feminist Killjoy," and novel are forthcoming. Follow her on Twitter @annamarch or learn more about her at annamarch.com.

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2016 Presidential Election Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Iowa Caucus 2016