Hillary Clinton and the US presidency’s still-intact glass ceiling

Hillary Clinton has not become the first woman president of the US, but a businessman who has displayed little policy knowledge and plenty of bigotry and xenophobia has

Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP/PTI
Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP/PTI

History of sorts was made in America in the early hours of 9 November but not for the reasons that people had been expecting it to.

Hillary Clinton has not become the first woman president of the US, but a businessman who has displayed little policy knowledge and betrayed plenty of bigotry and xenophobia has.

In 2008, when Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign for the democratic party’s nomination in favour of Barack Obama, she referred to the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” (the President’s office). The ceiling still remains, but Clinton did cause a crack in it when she secured her party’s nomination.

She may have been the first woman US presidential candidate on the ticket but she definitely wasn’t the first to throw her hat in the ring. In fact, it is a fight that goes back to the mid-19th century. First past the post was Victoria Woodhall, a suffragate leader who sought the candidacy of the Equal Rights Party. This was in 1872 when women did not even have the right to vote. In 1884 and 1888, Belva Ann Lockwood threw her hat in the ring. She argued “just because she couldn’t vote didn’t mean that men couldn’t vote for her,” wrote The Atlantic in a 3 November piece on “Women who paved the way for Clinton.”

In 1920, two more women, Laura Clay and Cora Wilson Stewart, vied for the nomination of the Democratic party. It would be 44 more years before two other women would try their luck—Margaret Chase Smith for the Republican Party and Fay Carpenter Swain for the Democratic Party. But it was only eight years later, in 1972, by which time the women’s movement had gained momentum that the first crack in the ceiling Clinton referred to appeared.

Three Democratic women, Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink and Bella Abzug tried to land the nomination. Chisholm was the first black woman elected to Congress. Time magazine recently wrote about her, “Chisholm was the not the first woman to vie for the Democratic nomination, she was the most viable up until that time.” The article does state that she did struggle for acceptance and described her campaign as “disorganised and under-funded.” 1972 was the year that America elected Richard Nixon to power. The year also saw another woman try to win the candidacy, Linda Jeness on the Socialist Workers Party ticket, but it was the Democratic party’s women who stole the show that year.

After this, the attempts became just a little more serious though most of the attempts ended up in crash and burn. Patricia Schroeder vied for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1988 but dropped out of the race early on in 1987 saying that she could not mount a campaign in a limited time given the complex selection system. The New York Times’ 1987 report describes her as “at times choking up with emotion.”

In the year 2000 there was Elizabeth Dole who in many ways was a pre-cursor to Hillary Clinton right down to the fact that she had served in two different Presidential administrations (Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush). Her husband Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton in 1996. In fact, Time put Clinton and Elizabeth Dole on the cover asking Who will be the better first lady? Dole ran for the Republican nomination in 2000 but pulled out early on (in 1999) itself before the primaries. Carol Moseley Braun, a US Senator sought the nomination for the Democratic Party in 2004 but dropped out after the DC primary. Then came of course 2008 and the famous Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama face-off which saw the former first lady eventually concede defeat to a young senator who had just started making inroads into politics.

In 2015, Pew Research Centre put out a report, citing United Nations data, stating that there are currently 18 female world leaders including 12 female heads of government and 11 elected heads of states. Of all the countries in the world, India has had women in power for the longest stretches, according to the report. They included Pratibha Patil’s term as President along with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure to come to a figure of a combined 21 years.

So why is it that America has steadfastly refused to elect a woman leader? In a piece done by news website Vox earlier this year, it was theorized that it was easier for women to become prime ministers than presidents because rarely are prime ministers elected by popular vote. Since people vote for the party rather than a candidate, a woman aspirant’s battles are within the party, securing the support of her colleagues rather than through a popular vote. The article also acknowledged the sexism at play when it comes to women leaders by stating, “beyond the electoral system, voters see the very office of the presidency in gendered terms.”

But was sexism alone to blame for Clinton’s historic defeat? It may have played a role but there are several factors beyond that, ranging from voters distrust, her status as a Washington insider and the sheer anger people felt against the establishment. Whatever the reasons, it is a day that could have made history for the right reasons as far as the women’s movement is concerned but decided against it eventually.

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