05/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Flawed Pioneer, Hillary Still Represents Change

I recently paid on overdue visit to a professor from the seminary where I received my Master of Divinity degree. She's a woman in her seventies, an ordained pastor and a retired professor of Christian Education. After the usual chit-chat about family life, she asked me if I had been involved in the current race for the Democratic nomination. I took a deep breath, and instead of changing the subject, I told her that I had given money to the Obama campaign. This somewhat understates my involvement in politics, but does not skirt the main point. She immediately told me that she is backing Senator Clinton.

At that point my two children, who were at the table with us but paying little attention to our conversation, immediately morphed into mini-Obamaniacs. "She's a liar," my son said. "She told four lies in twenty-eight words," my daughter added helpfully. I started to laugh nervously. For the record my husband and I don't indoctrinate our children, but their exposure to MSNBC nighttime programming has clearly taken its toll. I managed to quiet them so that my former professor could have her say.

She said she believes that Hillary Clinton is the best woman candidate for president that we will see in the next thirty years or so. While she allows that Obama is perhaps a good candidate, she feels he is too green. "Having a woman president will make a big difference," she said, quietly but firmly.

I nodded as she spoke--not because I agree, but to communicate that I understand why she feels this way. Her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated field of religion must surely have led her to this conclusion. Over the past fifty years or so, as thousands of women have entered the ministry and gained leadership positions (such as Bishop and the equivalent) in mainline Christian denominations, much has changed. Women who went to seminary as late as the early seventies often felt like pioneers. They successfully fought requirements that, for example, forced all Divinity majors to take courses from tenured professors notorious for sexually harassing women students. In the decades since, women have come to make up more than half of the student body at many theological seminaries, including Harvard Divinity School.

Protestant Denominations have revised hymnals to eliminate sexist language (for example, changing the old chestnut "Lead on, O King Eternal" to "Lead On, Eternal Sovereign"). Most importantly, churches have taken steps to prevent sexual abuse and harassment by clergy and to deal with the cases that crop up swiftly and with compassion for the victims. Ever wonder why the Roman Catholic Church has made headlines for incompetence in dealing with sexual abuse cases while Protestant churches have mostly gotten a pass? It's not because there have been no Protestant offenders--especially back in the days when nobody talked about these things. It's because Protestants have made fundamental changes in the way we handle the issue, putting more and more emphasis on prevention, on educating lay people, and on swiftly handling the cases that do arise. Women in church leadership made all the difference, and I suspect that women in other professions (such as medicine, the law, politics) have fostered similar dramatic changes. Surely they must feel, as I would, that it's time the "old girls network" they built from scratch at considerable personal cost extend all the way to the highest office in the nation.

By the time I entered Seminary (around the same time Barack Obama attended Law School), most male and female graduate students took the rightness of the changes brought by feminist pioneers like my professor for granted. We admire our mentors, but we are not afraid to deviate from them. I have always liked Hillary Clinton, but I cannot relate to her acceptance of her husband's chronic infidelities--especially in light of the fact that it took place during her daughter's impressionable years.

What older women see as a necessary compromise Hillary made in order to reach the pinnacle of power as a woman in a man's world--an alliance with a charismatic but ultimately flawed man--many women of my generation see as a kind of Achilles heel. Her apparent ability to live in a state of deep denial about her husband's philandering troubles me deeply. What if her denial extends to, say, the ability to ignore wise counsel on a national security issue--such as the necessity of invading Iraq? (Wait, that already happened.) To me, this issue of denial is critical, and diminishes her leadership potential. "That's personal," Hillary's defenders might very well object. Of course it is--but didn't Hillary's generation of women teach us that "the personal is political"? And isn't Hillary Clinton herself Exhibit A of this principle? Perhaps we have learned our lessons too well for the taste of our elders.

Finally, just as Baby Boomers must have felt when Bill Clinton and Al Gore ascended to the highest offices in the nation, people in my generation feel that it is our turn to lead. While I don't agree with the viewpoint of older women who support Hillary, I certainly understand it, and I remain hopeful that as Democrats we will unite behind the eventual candidate, and through that candidate achieve the feminist goals that we share.

I suppose it is only fair to add that my professor picked up the tab for our lunch.

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