EMILY's List Gala: Hillary Clinton Hosts a Funeral for the Glass Ceiling


EMILY’s List, a PAC that seeks to elect pro-choice female Democrats to office, threw a hell of a 30th anniversary party in Washington on Tuesday night. I was there. So was a woman who I’m pretty confident will one day be President of the United States. She was sitting at my table.

I didn’t understand how stacked the event’s guest list was until I took my seat a few speakers in. There was one chair available at the table for which I had a ticket (a table all the way at the front of the room, which should have maybe put me in High Alert Mode). It was right next to a woman who would introduce herself, in a whisper, before my brain could even register that I’d written about her before, as Senator Debbie Stabenow. I blinked for a second before sputtering “I love you.” She responded with a comment that we were both wearing the same shade of blue. OK. Hello Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, my new buddy. Hello. Doing great. Good work.

Because I’ve never been in a city where they just roam around in the wild, like celebrities do here in New York, in-the-flesh politicians are a fascinating novelty to me. Seeing them in real life brings out the sort of delight that a person would get from seeing, say, their middle school principal singing karaoke at a dive bar in Tampa. A bus driver with a bright pink mohawk. A robot Abe Lincoln that has magically come to life and is doing a cool dance. And so it felt a little overwhelming to be seated next to a Senator, glance up, make fleeting eye contact with Nancy Pelosi, and then focus on a woman in the foreground in purple, a woman with impeccable ash-blonde highlights and an easy laugh and a regal posture.

She looked a little familiar. I couldn’t place her.

Between the welcome round of speeches and dinner, one of my tablemates introduced herself to me. Her name was Ayanna Pressley, and she is a city council member in Boston. We chatted about Chicago, her hometown and my adopted adult hometown, as Hillary Clinton of Park Ridge, IL, sat feet away attracting a growing mob of people who wanted selfies with her.

Calling the EMILY’s List 30th anniversary gala a “party” is a little inaccurate; it was more of a lavish girl-power rally with prosecco that capped a day and a half of smaller, less white wine-soaked girl power panels run by prominent left-wing women, and in the non-scheduled times, everybody fangirls out on everybody else and congratulates each other. Speakers at the gala included Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (who I learned this week stands only 4’10” tall, but filled the entire ballroom with a booming voice that promised to raise some hell between now and the end of this, her last term in the Senate). Also onstage: California Attorney General (and likely future Senator) Kamala Harris, EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (who delivered a short speech with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, at her side), Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, and Hillary Clinton. Plus: celebs! Anna Gunn! Lena Dunham (via video)! Padma Lakshmi! Uzo Aduba! America Ferrera! Connie Britton! And Senator Al Franken, a man!

Collectively, EMILY’s List speakers seem confident that while the glass ceiling still exists, it isn’t long for this world. Speakers mentioned Hillary Clinton’s now-famous “18 million cracks” line from the 2008 elections, assured that America is on a one way trip toward gender parity. A female President isn’t a dream; it’s an inevitability. And filling statehouses and Capitol Hill halfway up with pro-choice women is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Get out of the way or get knocked over! The EMILY’s List gala stage had swagger, and by the end of two hours, everybody in that room was confidence-drunk and self-esteem soaked.

Tuesday marked only the third time I’d seen Hillary Clinton in person. The first was nearly 23 years ago. I was eight, at a county fair in Iowa, a campaign stop for her husband. As he and Hillary walked through the crowd toward the stage (which I remember was ringed with small hay bales decorated with the 4-H logo), the crowd pushed up against the flimsy crowd control rope barriers. My cousins and I were smaller than the reaching adults, only waist-height. Hillary, rather than focusing on the grown ups, crouched down and shook all of our hands in a row. It was the biggest thrill I’d had since the Minnesota Twins had won the World Series the previous October.

At the gala, she paid similar special attention to the kids. A fellow writer brought her infant child to meet the former Secretary of State. A little girl in a pink glittery dress who was probably the same age I’d been when Hillary shook my hand beamed as Mrs. Clinton chatted with her. Hillary was supernaturally calm. Her Secret Service detail, men who looked straight out of central casting, chomped gum. At no point in the evening did I hear a single person utter anything about the growing speculation around Clinton’s use of a private email address to do business as Secretary of State. Buoyed by the invincible confidence spun on stage, the room carried on as though a scandal that could derail her campaign before it even officially launches had already blown over. They wanted their Hillary selfies, goddamn it, and no amount of external scrutiny would bring them down.

As this year’s recipient of the EMILY’s List Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star award, Ayanna Pressley had a room full of impressive people to impress. Not that she doesn’t have a lot going on herself. She’s the first woman of color ever elected to serve on Boston’s city council, and made women and girls her priority while in office—focusing on comprehensive sex ed and condoms in schools, programs that help pregnant teens and teen parents to graduate, community/police relations, and sex workers who have been exploited. She also gives one helluva speech.

I don’t know if it was the prosecco, or if I was feeling lightheaded from being so close to so many women I’ve admired at one point or another in my life, but as soon as Pressley opened her mouth, the room went from feeling like a pep rally to feeling like a religious revival. She began,

I’m here tonight because of a single voice. That of my mother’s, Sandra Pressley. It was a voice of conviction that told a black girl growing up on a tough block in Chicago that she had a right to a life of her own choosing, of her own design, unshackled to the stereotypes or stigmas society would reflexively assign her. It was a voice of comfort for a little girl whose father was stolen away by addiction and incarceration. A little girl whose vulnerability was sexually exploited and violently preyed upon as a young woman. It was a voice of protest, of defiance, of democracy that echoed in the little girl’s ears as she was carried in her mother’s arms. From protest marches to political rallies in Cabrini Green to political rallies to the voting booth, that voice made sure the little girl understood not just her rights, but her responsibilities. It was a voice that was opinionated, unapologetic… unafraid. It was a voice that told me of Shirley Chisholm, of Barbara Jordan, that celebrated women locally like Jane Byrne, Jan Shakowski, and Carol Moseley Braun.

Pressley’s husband, an urban violence intervention specialist, spent the duration of his wife’s speech with an awed look on his face. It was hard to blame him.

It would be a lie to suggest that there aren’t times when being quiet and avoiding the spotlight is appealing. I’m sure everyone in this room has felt that way. But we have that luxury. We have a voice. But there are countless girls and women across this country who have no voice. Girls and women who live silent existences in homeless shelters and suburban split level homes. Girls and women who have had their voices stolen away by violence and exploitation. Girls and women who have had their voices legislated away.

My new best friend Senator Debbie Stabenow and I exchanged approving glances. I congratulated her husband on marrying such a badass. Everybody felt great about themselves, indomitably optimistic about the feminist utopia future those in this room believed, in their collective hearts, was inevitable. I’ve never felt more reassured. I poured myself more wine.

This is the point in the evening when I started worrying that maybe this was an incredibly realistic hallucination, that the energy it took to assimilate to CPAC had robbed me of all of my mental energy, and now there was nothing left but a ballroom utopia in my brain. Maybe I was in a coma and this was my new inner life, to be lived entirely inside a room decorated with yellow roses and scored by a parade of speeches given by women who kept talking about how cool and tough women are and how important reproductive choice is to their political philosophy, when assumed (but as-yet undeclared) Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton bats cleanup and opens her speech with a joke about that damn blue and black or gold and white dress and proceeds to dance around a Presidential run for several minutes, virtually laying out a skeletal domestic policy agenda (Unions! Women! The Middle Class!) to a rapt room. A room so hellbent on the future of its choosing that it can’t be bothered to worry about emails, or secrecy, or Benghazi, or Israel, or any other sticky issue that could trip up Hillary’s candidacy.

In this world, Ayanna Pressley, a woman who just brought the whole room to a stop, is visibly flabbergasted by a hat tip in Clinton’s speech. Al Franken is to my right and Debbie Wasserman Schultz is to my left and America Ferrera is sitting directly across from me and Padma Lakshmi at about 9:00 as I eat fish with Debbie Stabenow. Maybe my mind has created a fantasy land where women wear statement eyeglasses and lipstick, and every person who talks into the mic is required by law to allude to Hillary Clinton running for President, and then everybody in the room claps for 30 seconds while Clinton laughs appreciatively. I’m okay with this. I can live here, at least temporarily.

After Hillary closed out the program with a solid (but, to be honest, not Ayanna Pressley-level) speech, Senator Stabenow and I bid our farewells. A small crowd of admirers mobbed Pressley. I told her that her time onstage was my favorite of the evening, I think. The next thing I remember is her hugging me and telling me that she wants to win cynics like me back. Another wave of admirers swept in, and, exhausted, I made my way back to my hotel room, out of the feminist utopia and back to reality.

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