Did it have to be Hillary Clinton for president? Yes. Here’s why
Some voters have met Clinton’s campaign with skepticism; they want a woman, just not this woman. But the gender gap explains why she makes perfect sense
The US is the closest it’s ever been to breaking the 240-year male stronghold on the presidency. Though American women have made some political gains during that period, there has only been one woman so far with a real chance of smashing that glass ceiling: Hillary Clinton.
And yet some women, especially young women, have greeted Clinton’s historic candidacy with muted enthusiasm.
“I want there to be a woman president, of course,” said Maria Alcivar, a graduate student at Iowa State University and reluctant Clinton supporter. “I just don’t see why it had to be her.”
Across the country over the last 18 months, several women have expressed similar sentiments: a wish that the potential first female leader was someone less flawed and less polarizing.
Experts say there is no predictable route to the presidency for a female candidate, not least because the trail is still being blazed. But there is a case to be made that the first woman to get this close to the presidency would probably look a lot like Clinton: a nationally recognizable figure with an extensive résumé and close proximity to power.
“There’s a saying, the first into battle needs to wear the most armor,” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women running for executive office.
She continued: “Because women have higher and harder barriers to clear the path to executive office, the women that win need to exceed expectations – so by comparison they tend to be more qualified than their opponents.”
A 2011 study identified what the researchers called the “Jackie (and Jill) Robinson effect”, a reference to the first African American player in Major League Baseball. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and by no coincidence, according to the theory, he remains one of the best players of all time.
The study found that female lawmakers outperform their male colleagues, introducing more legislation and delivering more financial projects to their home districts. This, the researchers suggest, is the result of underlying gender discrimination, which narrows the prospective pool of female candidates down to only the most qualified, talented and politically ambitious.
“One of the reasons it’s taking so long to elect a woman president is because very few women have actually run for president,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. The first may have been Victoria Woodhull in 1872, nearly 50 years before women won the vote, and 136 years before Clinton’s first competitive campaign in 2008.
The gender gap leaves a very narrow pipeline to the top, Lawless said. The most common route to the US presidency is through the Senate or a governor’s mansion, which greatly narrows the pool of prospective female candidates, since there are currently only 20 women serving in the 100-strong US Senate, 84 congresswomen (19%) and six female governors.
Patricia Schroeder, a former Democratic congresswoman from Colorado who briefly ran for the Democratic nomination in 1987, has spent a lot of time over the last 18 months thinking about what has changed for women since she first entered Congress in 1973.
“Sexism is a lot harder to pinpoint than it was but it’s clearly still there,” she said.
When Schroeder first arrived in Congress she faced questions from her male colleagues about how she managed to raise two small children while being a lawmaker. On one occasion she snapped back: “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.” She was also advised never to wear green. It apparently was not a power color.
Research shows that women who run for elective office win at comparable rates to men. Party trumps gender at the ballot box. That is to say, male and female voters overwhelmingly support their party’s candidate, regardless of gender.
In an analysis of 2010 House races, female candidates received as many votes as male candidates of the same seat status (incumbent, open seat, challenger), according to a study by Kathleen Dolan published in her 2014 book, When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections.
And yet women seeking to run for office still encounter barriers their male counterparts do not. Studies show they are less likely to express interest in a political career and more likely to doubt their ability to run. Women are less likely to put themselves forward and need to be recruited to run for office, research suggests.
Ivy Taylor, the mayor of San Antonio, said she did not start her career expecting to run for public office. After encouragement from her husband and community leaders she decided to try for a seat on the city council in 2009.
“I felt qualified but not ready, if that makes sense,” Taylor said of her decision to run. “It took some time for me to get used to the idea because I didn’t think of myself as a politician but then I came to understand that elected office was an extension of my commitment to working with people in order to create a better future.”
Taylor is one of only 19 big city mayors, according to a 2016 report by the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance of the 100 largest US cities. Of the top 15, only San Antonio has a female mayor.
Experts and political groups involved in recruiting women to elective office say that having a female president – whoever she is – will open doors for women at every level of government, regardless of party. In some cases, even the prospect of a Clinton presidency has already helped.
“It is not a coincidence that we have a [high] number of Democratic women running in competitive Senate races in the same year we have Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket,” according to Muthoni Wambu Kraal, the senior director for state and local campaigns at Emily’s List, which has been helping elect pro-choice women since 1985. “She was a powerful recruitment tool.”