One of America’s thickest gender-limiting glass ceilings is set to be shattered in Philadelphia this week. Where’s the feminist glee?

Granted, it’s been an expectation-defying political year. Still, I expected more audible cheers from lovers of gender equality during the run-up to the first major-party nomination of a woman to be president of the United States than I’ve heard since Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party crown.

And I expected a mite more feminist solidarity in Clinton’s defense than was mustered last week as the presumptive Democratic nominee was cast as a bogeywoman at the Republican National Convention. Instead, female delegates appeared to be as full-throated as their male counterparts as they chanted “Lock her up!” and cheered Ben Carson’s preposterous proposition that Clinton admires Lucifer.

Have feminists gone quiet because Hillary is Hillary? Yes, said several Minnesota women with whom I’ve shared my observation. Clinton isn’t much seen as a pioneering Everywoman, venturing bravely where no female politician has gone before, they said. The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state has been playing with the boys for decades, and has plenty of bruises and a record of mistakes to show for it. Those mistakes — support for the invasion of Iraq, use of a private e-mail server during her stint as secretary of state — suppress her support.

Clinton is treated as one of the boys might be, they said. Which, if it’s true, is quite an achievement in itself.

I won’t quarrel with that analysis. But let me suggest another reason why some of the same women who had tears in their eyes in 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for vice president will be dry-eyed this week — one that has to do with the evolution of the American women’s movement.

Clinton’s nomination might be seen as a delayed ripple from the movement’s second wave, which mostly landed between the late 1960s and 1990. The first wave, 1848 to 1920, was about women gaining access to ballots. The second was about access to the workplace. Occupations that had long been male-dominated became gender-integrated. Women began to climb into society’s leadership ranks, propelled by a notion that if positions of power could be populated by women, society would change for the better. All women — and men and children, too — would benefit.

That idea now seems like a naive relic of a more innocent time — a pre-2008 time. You remember 2008 — the year when many Americans thought the election of an African-American president would usher in a positive new era of race relations in this country.

Instead, Minnesota civil-rights icon Josie Johnson says, Barack Obama’s presidency has served to highlight the racial divide that persists 150 years after slavery ended, and that, sadly, turned bloody again this summer.

Johnson is worth hearing on the subject of glass ceilings and candidates striving to break them. At age 85 and an educator by profession, she is a veteran of both the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and the women’s movement that sprang from it, and a keen analyst of both.

Obama has faced partisan opposition arguably stiffer than any other modern-era president experienced. Johnson is convinced that Obama’s race is part of the reason. “He has violated all the images that have been projected since slavery of what a black person does, says and feels,” she said. “A lot of Americans could not accept that. He was violating a belief system that’s deeply etched in American life.”

Likewise, Johnson said, Hillary Clinton came into Americans’ consciousness a quarter-century ago as a presidential spouse whose professional status, policymaking role and wonkish nature ran contrary to traditional notions about first ladies. Political rivals quickly perceived that she was not a sympathetic figure, and piled on, Johnson said.

“I can’t get over the image that has been painted of Hillary Clinton that in my judgment is simply not true,” she said. “I’m very happy about this woman. She has impressed me since the 2008 [Democratic national] convention, when she spoke so sensitively about issues that need to be addressed in this country and so graciously about her rival, Barack Obama. I’ll be her very enthusiastic supporter this fall. We need her voice.”

“Her voice.” Not her superpowers of societal transformation. Feminists have acquired more realistic expectations. They’ve come to see the arrival of women in positions of authority as a desirable but not sufficient development in the quest to create a fairer society.

That does not mean that a woman at the top of a major-party ticket doesn’t deserve a cheer. “It’s critical that we have all voices heard in America,” Johnson said. “Unless we can have all voices heard — not just sitting at the table, but heard — we will continue to behave as we have for decades and centuries, abusing people who are different.”

A third wave of the American women’s movement may be arriving. But that’s not because the Democrats are about to nominate a woman for president. It’s because millions of daughters and granddaughters of second-wave feminists are chafing at the many ways in which outdated assumptions about gender roles still hold sway in American life.

Clinton’s ascendancy might help the third-wavers do something about that. But today’s feminists understand better than their mothers did that lasting changes in American society are propelled from the bottom, not the top.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.