There were smiles and hugs at the start of the election-night party at Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater. Former students from as far back as the 1940s joined current students, faculty and staff for what was widely expected to be a celebration of their most famous alumna’s biggest night.
The largely female crowd of about 3,000 snacked on cupcakes topped with shards of candy glass ceiling (clear, flat sugar) and snapped group selfies with the Clinton cardboard cutouts decorating the arena. They also took pictures of themselves grabbing the crotches of the Donald Trump and Mike Pence cutouts.
Graduating senior Caroline Bechtel, who will serve as a second lieutenant in the army after she finishes officer training school in 2017, talked about her relief that the election season was over and that Clinton would be president. Her classmate Zainab Younus, who is majoring in international relations, said how exciting it had been to be with her politically engaged classmates supporting Clinton’s campaign.
Then the results started rolling in.
By 9.30pm, the guests seated in the front of the college’s field house – watching the results on CNN and in a position to hear the commentary – looked much tenser than the ones still standing in line for the bar and partying in the back of the room.
Lindsay Miller, a class of 1969 schoolmate of Clinton’s, and the former editor of their college newspaper, explained that when it comes to Clinton and Trump, “it’s no contest, but it looks like there’s a contest, and that says something about our country.”
“What we’re seeing is a serious, serious split,” Miller, a journalist, said.
Graduating senior Amal Cheema said much the same. “As the polls came in, I was seeing how much division and disagreement there is in America.”
By 10.22pm, after the predicted Clinton blowout had failed to materialize and everyone was settling in for a close race, Wellesley’s other famous Democratic alumna, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, addressed the cheering audience remotely. “Nothing comes easy for women. But I think she’ll pull it out,” she told them.
Four minutes later, the audience booed the announcement that Trump had won Ohio.
As state after state went for Trump, people began making discreet exits. Ten minutes after results showed the Republican candidate up in Iowa,a young woman was visibly in tears, being comforted by her friends.
She wouldn’t be the last.
The fluorescent lights came on at the back of the field house an hour and several more electoral votes for Trump later. Around the room, women were comforting one another as despondent face found despondent face. A biracial lesbian couple were holding on to each other, with a visceral sense of defeat.
Shortly after midnight, when CNN showed Trump pulling away from Clinton in Pennsylvania, a few women shouted “No!” and “Why?” at no one in particular, as the catering staff packed up the bar and dispatched the remains of the cheese plates and buffet sandwiches. More and more women could be seen crying on one another’s shoulders, while one group of women (and a couple of male friends) gave the middle finger to CNN’s Jake Tapper on the large screen.
Younus, the graduating senior who had started the night so excited by the thought of a Clinton win, stood in the middle of the room, alone, with her arms crossed across her chest. “How are we supposed to predict anything?” she asked rhetorically, and then refused to answer any more questions.
Tempestt Morgan – who had been hoping against hope for a Clinton victory at 12.30am – was not optimistic about the America into which she would be entering as a college graduate next May. “Even if [Clinton] somehow makes it back from this, it’s still sad to see so many people aligned with a candidate like [Trump]” she said.
Her friend, Jekia Brockman, looked around at the women crying – one of whom flopped over dramatically as yet another state was said to be leaning Trump – and said: “It’s not unbelievable. It’s completely believable.”
Just before 1.30am, as the group of (mostly) students watching the results had dwindled to a couple of hundred, the Wellesley president, Paula Johnson, took the stage. “Whatever the result, we stand for justice,” she said. “We stand for equality for every one, no matter your gender, your race, your sexual orientation or your religion, no matter what country you’re from or what your immigration status is.”
“We must be part of the momentum that takes us forward from here” she added, after a standing ovation.
“We will be here together in the morning” she said.
And then, just minutes before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Wellesley College shut down the news feed, and sent their students and guests home.