Hillary Clinton’s swoon, following a memorial service on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, was the worst possible optics for a woman on the campaign trail: Fainting woman, grab the smelling salts.

Never mind that it’s a campaign that would test the fittest, strongest amongst us. But because Clinton is a woman, it seemed to send the world into shock.

The sexism isn’t new and she’s had to face it since 1979 when her husband became governor of Arkansas and she was asked about fitting the ‘image’ of a first lady—she had kept her name, was childless and practised law.

Since then she’s tagged on her husband’s name and become a grandmother. But the misogyny, from pantsuit to—gasp—ambition—continues and this year’s Republican National Convention, reports The Atlantic, saw t-shirts emblazoned with such slogans as ‘Trump that bitch’ and ‘Hillary sucks but not like Monica’.

Women politicians here in India might sympathize. Gul Panag, the AAP candidate who lost from Chandigarh in 2014, was confronted with a photoshopped picture and a strategically placed AAP topi.

Samajwadi Party’s Jaya Prada had to deal with morphed posters and a CD, circulated, she alleged, by her own party’s Azam Khan. A social kiss between Vasundhara Raje and Biocon chief Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw became fodder for an inflammatory pamphlet.

The violence can be physical. In 1995, Mayawati had to lock herself inside a government guest house while a mob (Samajwadi Party thugs, she said) tried to break down the door.

Mamata Banerjee sustained head injuries during a 1991 CPM-led attack. And Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, then leader of the opposition, had her sari ripped by DMK MLAs inside the assembly in 1989.

Even when women are in power, it seems okay to speculate about their lovers and godfathers (because, god knows, a woman can never make it on her own).

The women under attack respond most often by silence or, as the BJP’s Smriti Irani did, by filing a defamation case. Few, if any, speak up and I can only think of two possible reasons. The first: why dignify a scurrilous campaign? And the second: most are loath to play the woman card, keen to be judged on their own merits rather than some cooked-up scandal.

Men are subject to violence in the campaign trail, too. But the effect this has on women entering public life is clear. In an aggressively male-dominated, chest-thumping, testosterone-raging, goonda-gathering, cash- and booze-distributing electoral system, the violence, both metaphorical and physical, becomes yet another barrier to entry.

When the elite club does open its doors to women, it’s often to admit members from within its ranks. Historian Patrick French estimates that 69.5% of all women MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha were what he calls ‘hereditary’ MPs or what we commonly refer to as the bahu-beti brigade.

None of this is good news for independent women seeking to enter political life. Despite parties claiming to support greater representation, women comprised just 7.8% of all contestants in the 2014 general elections, according to the Association of Democratic Reform.

A bill to reserve 33% of all seats for women in Parliament and the assemblies seems to have gone into cold storage and even the Panchayati Raj Act that reserves 33%—up to 50% in states like Bihar—has been tweaked recently. Both Rajasthan and Haryana now have minimum education requirements that, in effect, limit the participation of women who have traditionally been denied access to education.

‘History made’ tweeted Hillary Clinton after becoming her party’s candidate for president. In India we’ve already passed those milestones: first prime minister, first woman president, speaker of the House, leader of the Opposition. And, yet, as a group, women still struggle to get a toehold in.

And that’s not a situation that is going to change soon.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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