COLUMBIA — Missouri native Vena Long met Hillary Clinton when Clinton gave a speech in Jefferson City as the first lady of Arkansas, long before she began actively pursuing her own political aspirations.
She walked up to a podium with a folder, Long remembered, but she never opened it. And still, she spoke with “clarity and detail” about her positions and her work as first lady, Long recalled.
“I was in awe,” said Long, 69, a retired high school math teacher and University of Tennessee professor who has lived in Columbia since 2012. “I was doing a lot of public speaking and studying public speaking, and I was so impressed with what she was able to do without referring to notes. She never missed a beat.”
Long shook Clinton’s hand after the speech, and she’s followed her career since.
But Tuesday night, Donald Trump defeated Clinton in an unexpected victory to become the 45th president — and the 45th male president. The United States will not yet join more than 70 countries that have elected or appointed female heads of state.
"We still have not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling," Clinton said in her concession speech Wednesday morning. "But someday someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now."
Long said she believes Clinton's election would have been the encouragement many women needed to run for local, state and national races. But Wednesday morning, she was disappointed and scared.
"I was relieved to see she won the popular vote, which I wasn’t sure she was going to do," Long said. "I fear for what’s coming, but I’m praying that we’ve got strong enough institutions to make some of the right moves."
Columbia women spoke about what Clinton's victory would have meant to them and the feelings of discouragement and uncertainty brought on by her defeat. Many had been buoyed by the knowledge that their daughters and granddaughters could grow up knowing they, too, could one day be president.
Women in power
Much like Clinton, Betty Wilson, 84, knows how it feels to not quite fit the mold of the politician's wife.
Her husband, Clyde, who died in 2010, served one term as Columbia’s mayor and four terms on the Columbia City Council. Posters and newspaper clips from his candidacies still hang on the walls of the home in east Columbia that they shared for nearly 50 years.
Wilson continued to work as a lawyer while raising the couple’s five children and is still working full time.
“I identified with her when she was first lady because when my husband was in politics, I had my own identity but was defined by him,” Wilson said. “That’s fine, but it’s a little hard to do because you get criticized.”
Wilson had her own opinions and expressed them publicly, which not everyone liked. She was also criticized for continuing to work part time as a lawyer while her children were small.
She had political interests outside her husband’s career, which she attributes to the way her parents raised her. Political conversations at the dinner table were regular, and registering to vote was an important milestone for her and her siblings. Her grandmother marched in parades as a suffragist.
Wilson said Wednesday morning she was very disappointed in the election results and concerned by the deep division in the country. However, she plans to stay politically active and keep supporting women in politics.
"I don't see another female candidate this deeply qualified on the horizon in my lifetime, but hopefully that will happen for my daughter or granddaughter," Wilson said.
Vicky Riback Wilson, 70, who is unrelated to Betty Wilson, has wanted women to have equal access to opportunities for years. Her political career began informally in junior high school when she started a campaign to allow girls to take shop class. Only boys could take the class, while the girls were required to take home economics, which taught cooking, sewing and other housekeeping skills. In high school, she was frustrated when women couldn’t play sports; they could only be cheerleaders.
Riback Wilson’s political interests led to a career of public service, including eight years in the Missouri House of Representatives. She was the first woman in Boone County to be elected to a full term in the House.
There were constant challenges as a woman in politics, she said, but women of both parties in the Missouri House and Senate joined forces to work on issues they could mutually agree on, such as child care, health care and education.
She believes that having a female president would have finally aligned the country with its foundational values of equal opportunity.
“It makes no sense that in a country where we pride ourselves on offering equal opportunities and many qualified women, it would take us this long to have a female head of state,” she said.
More personally, she saw Clinton’s candidacy as a strong message to younger women that they can contribute to society in any way they choose. Two of her granddaughters called her last week and left her a voice mail, singing a song about Clinton, she said.
“They already recognize at some level that there is something different about having a woman, someone they can see as a role model or identify with,” she said.
Her older granddaughter, who's 7 years old, couldn't believe the election's result, Riback Wilson said.
"She said, 'How can the country elect someone who says such mean things and yells at people?'" Riback Wilson said. "My daughter wisely explained that what we all have to do is be nice to everyone and work to include everyone. That's how we set the example for this country."
She said she's concerned about the effects of future political decisions on her children and grandchildren, but she believes the country still needs to work together peacefully moving forward.
"After getting over the shock, I realized that generations of women going back to the early suffragists have worked and sacrificed a lot to make sure that there was equality in this country," she said. "It’s up to all of us now to carry on that fight."
A new era of history
A female president's election would have been symbolic and a milestone in a long history of women’s rights activism, said Sarah Lirley McCune, 37, a doctoral student focusing on women’s and gender history at MU. But even that step is symbolic and leaves work to be done, she said.
“Just because we elect a woman president doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to have gender equality,” Lirley McCune said. “It’s a huge step in the right direction, but there’s more to it than that. History isn’t a tale of progress that’s unfettered.”
She said she believes Clinton's election would have given more weight to women's history and influenced the way history is studied. Much like Barack Obama’s election as the first black president, she believes it would have demonstrated to younger generations that attaining the presidency is a real possibility.
“It would show that people who aren’t the rich white guys can and do have a say,” Lirley McCune said.
Lirley McCune said she was disheartened and worried Wednesday, but she still believed that if a woman came close to the presidency this time, it can happen again.
"It's still a huge milestone," Lirley McCune said. "She won the popular vote. It's disappointing, but still significant."
Mahree Skala, 63, said the election of a woman would have been a sign of the U.S. finally entering the modern era of politics. She’s active in many Columbia community organizations and has been involved in the League of Women Voters for about three years. She's also the wife of City Councilman Karl Skala.
“I think it would be a wonderful affirmation of all the positive changes that have taken place in my lifetime, in terms of what women are able to do and our role in society,” Skala said. “We’re just a more powerful force than we used to be.”
The morning after the election, Skala said she couldn't grasp what would happen, or what Trump's election would mean for the country.
She said she never expected to see a woman elected as president when she first voted in 1972. Clinton's candidacy gave her hope that it would be possible, but now, she's not sure.
"I really would like for us to have a woman leader," Skala said, "but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen in my lifetime, now."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.