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  • Feminism, Teachers’ Unions and the Nomination of Hillary Clinton
    Updated On: Aug 21, 2016

    By JoAnne Powers, August 8, 2016

    [Becky Pringle]: “I can tell you as a woman that it was powerful. It was encouraging as a mother of a daughter. It was emotional, quite honestly. And 2016, right!? The first nomination of a woman!”

    That was National Education Association Vice President Becky Pringle reacting to the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's official presidential candidate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. While minor parties such as the Green Party or the Workers World party have nominated women previously, and both major parties have nominated women for Vice President, Pringle says recognition of the historic nature of Clinton's nomination was a bit slow to develop:

    [Becky Pringle]: “As a woman leader, we don’t lead with that. We lead with our competence and with our strength and with our experience. With our passion, with our commitment

    We don’t lead with ‘and, by the way…you know, we need more women in positions of power.’ So, we don’t lead with that. So, I think throughout the campaign from the time the NEA recommended Hillary in the primary up until our convention voted for her in the general a couple of weeks ago, that was not our focus. So we didn’t allow ourselves to even get into that space that, ‘oh, my god…this is historic.’ But, last night, it hit me...and it was big.”

    Educators made up the largest contingent of delegates at the Convention, and the leadership of the nation's largest teachers unions moved quickly to endorse Clinton in the primary. The move angered more progressive rank-and-file members of both unions over Clinton's apparent support for privatized corporate charter schools. Clinton's positions on education issues are among those that seem to have moved further to the left in response to the efforts of education activists and the decidedly more progressive candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Union members have now largely united behind Clinton for the general election, Union leadership, however, such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the first openly-gay president of a national American labor union, have long been Clinton supporters. The AFT endorsed Clinton over a year ago. Weingarten also cited the historic nature of the nomination:

    [Randi Weingarten]: “No one should vote for Hillary [just] because she is a woman, but one has to recognize that she’s gotten where she’s gotten to in some ways because it’s so much harder to do it as a woman. The way Barack Obama said it yesterday that they competed, but she had to do it dancing backwards in heels, was kind of an acknowledgement of just how hard it is to break that particular glass ceiling.”

    Weingarten says the shattering of that particular glass ceiling will cause shards to fall all over:

    [Randi Weingarten]: “Because it…it’s been one of the hardest planes to break. The fact that we’ve gone from Seneca Falls where there was the fight that started to change the constitution to get a right to vote…to now, after that constitutional amendment securing the right to vote for women…to having, over 150 years later, the right to vote…and the first nominee of a major party being a woman, and a woman who is exquisitely qualified…is a moment of tremendous pride. It is a historical moment in so many different ways.”

    Historian Marjorie Murphy cites the influence of feminism on teachers' unions going all the way back to women-led unions such as the AFT's forerunner, the Chicago Teachers' Union, in the late 19th century. Women still make up three-quarters of the nation's public school teachers, and women hold leadership roles in teachers unions from the national to the local level. With both workers rights and women's rights seemingly under increased attack nationwide, the NEA's Pringle observes that sexism has colored the public perception of Clinton's candidacy:

    [Becky Pringle]: “There’s so much noise in the system about all the things, you know, painting her the way they want to. And what really bothers me about that is her…the asset, it is her strength that attracted the venom and the vitriolic language and the, you know, trying to put here in this box of ‘she’s stepping outside of her role and she shouldn’t be doing these things’. But when he went through that list, no one could question where her heart was and where her passion was That social justice lens defined her entire career, every choice she made and every decision, and…was that not powerful? And we’ve got to reclaim that story.”

    Pringle also says that the historic nomination of Clinton was the result of her standing on the shoulders of giants:

    [Becky Pringle]: “I could just not be more proud of the role that all the women who came before us…all of them from Shirley Chisolm to Barbara Jordan to Gloria Steinem. And I was speaking with our delegation of unions who’ve come together at this convention and I was speaking with them and I talked about…I went back all the way back to Sojourner Truth, who in one of her abolitionist rallies, she said, ‘You know, if women wants any more rights than what they’s got why don’t they just take ‘em, and not be talkin’ about it!’ Right? That’s what we’ve done. Your lifting up your voice is so important, but Hillary is the standard-bearer for not just talkin’ about it.”

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