The 2016 presidential campaign is historic in many respects, but none is more important than the role gender has played. For the first time, a woman is at the top of a major party’s ticket, and for the first time, millions of Americans are talking about the unequal playing field that she confronts. Hillary Clinton has long been dogged by concerns that she is “cunning,” “savage,” and “pushy”—a “lady Macbeth in a headband.” But the vitriol that this election has unleashed, and voters’ reactions, reminds us of the progress that we have made as well as the challenges that remain.
The historical context
Until the last several decades, women in public office were notable mainly for their absence. The only leadership positions in which women enjoyed significant representation were library and school boards. When the Gallup poll began asking whether voters would support a qualified woman for president in 1937, only a third said yes. When I went to Yale law school in the late 1970s, men accounted for about 90% of state legislators, 95% of Congressional leaders, 96% of governors, 99% of cabinet members, and 100% of Supreme Court justices. In explaining these patterns, then US president Richard Nixon captured common views with uncommon candor: “I’m not for women, frankly in any job… Thank God we don’t have any in the cabinet. “
What is striking to me now is how little of this was striking to me then. It was just how law, leadership, and life were.
Women’s continued underrepresentation
Today, the political landscape looks quite different. 95% of Americans say that they would vote for a qualified woman for president. In Pew surveys, three quarters of respondents believe that men and women are equally qualified for political leadership, and of the remainder, 11% of women and 7% of men think women actually make better leaders.
Yet despite this progress, gender disparities in political leadership remain persistent and pervasive. Women account for just 12% of governors in the continental US, 20% of Congress, and 25% of state legislatures. Women of color, meanwhile, constitute just 6% of Congress, 5% of state legislators, and 4% of governors. Given current rates of change, it would take close to 100 years to equalize men’s and women’s representation in Congress. From an international perspective, the United States lags behind many countries; it ranks 97th in the world for women’s representation in national legislatures.
What accounts for this underrepresentation? The problem is not performance. Researchers consistently find that when women run for office, they are just as effective in terms of fundraising and electability. Rather, gender disparities reflect other factors. Women are less likely than men to run for political office, in part due to gender related personal and political challenges. One of those challenges involves disproportionate family responsibilities that make it harder for women to launch campaigns early enough in their careers to gain the requisite experience. Another major obstacle is the advantage of incumbency. The overwhelming majority of current political leaders are men, most of whom successfully seek reelection. Then there’s the fact that women are less likely than men to believe themselves qualified for political office and less likely to run unless they are asked, a problem compounded by the fact that fewer women are in fact asked.
As Charlotte Whitman, the first female mayor of Ottawa, famously maintained: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” Most American women think she’s right, except for the part about it not being difficult.
Part of the problem involves gender stereotypes. Female politicians face a double standard and a double bind. Clinton’s experience is a cautionary tale. She has faced criticism for her “cackle,” and her “abrasive,” “ irritating,“ “scolding” and “Hitlerian” manner. References to her as a “ball breaker” and “castrator” have aired on cable television, and a Hillary nutcracker has been sold as a novelty item. In the 2016 race, the venom reached a new pitch, with calls to “lock her up” dominating political rallies. Yet as commentators incessantly noted, if Bernie Sanders were a woman, he would be dismissed as unacceptably “shrill,” and if Trump were female, said New York Times columnist Gail Collins, “truly you don’t want to go there.”
Women’s appearance also attracts special scrutiny. Elizabeth Warren was told she had a “school marm” appearance. Donald Trump invited voters to look at Carly Fiorina’s face and asked: “Would anyone vote for that?” Hillary Clinton has faced seemingly endless criticism for everything from her pantsuits to her hairstyles to her 2007 show of cleavage on the Senate floor. It speaks volumes about our culture’s misplaced priorities, as well the pressures facing female candidates, that Sarah Palin’s campaign spent more on her makeup specialist than on her foreign policy advisor.
Why it matters
Despite contemporary culture’s progressive push, fighting for women’s increased representation matters. For one thing, the presence of women inherently helps to confer legitimacy on governing institutions and provides female role models. We must find ways to broaden the nation’s pool of potential leaders; visibility is one way to achieve this.
The participation of women also increases the likelihood both that women’s interests will be adequately represented and that governing institutions will function more effectively. Ideology is more critical than gender in predicting support for “women’s issues, ” and the quality of candidates is obviously important. Putting more women in power doesn’t necessarily empower women as a group, as Margaret Thatcher’s record famously reminds us. Still, most recent evidence suggests that women’s greater presence in political leadership makes a difference, particularly in getting women’s concerns onto the agenda. Both in Congress and state legislatures, women are more likely than their male colleagues to address women’s issues, to rank them as priorities, and to spend political capital in their behalf. Women of color are particularly likely to champion issues of special concern to women and communities of color.
Women’s tendency toward participatory styles of leadership is an asset in many political contexts that require collaboration across party lines. For example, during the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, Congressional women played a pivotal role in brokering a solution. And in 2010, French Finance minister Christine Lagarde claimed that “women inject less libido and less testosterone into the equation.” Many Americans watching the 2016 Republican presidential debates undoubtedly agreed.
Strategies for change
To achieve significant change, it’s vital that women and our allies clarify the kind of change the nation is looking for. Is the goal simply to increase the number of women in political leadership? Or is it to advance women’s interests more generally, developing women’s leadership as a means to that end? For those who care about gender equity, the best strategy is recruitment and support of female candidates who will make that goal a policy priority. That is not to argue that women should, as some Sanders’ supporters put it, “vote with their vaginas.” Rather it is to claim that voters of both sexes who care about gender equality should target more votes and dollars to politicians committed to that agenda.
A good start would be focusing on strategies designed to increase women’s willingness and capacity to run for office. For example, more support should go to organizations that provide mentoring and resources for aspiring women politicians—groups such as Emily’s List, Ready to Run, VoteRunLead, Political Institute for Women, Emerge America, Project GoPink, Ready to Run Diversity Initiative, and the National Federation of Republican Women.
We also need to appeal directly to the next generation of female leaders. Surveys of college students find that nearly twice as many male students as female students indicate that they would consider running for office when they were older. To address that gap, we need efforts like “Teach a Girl to Lead,” a program run by the Center for American Women and Politics, which makes resources available to parents, teachers, librarians and students. The Center also runs a NEW Leadership program that, along with other initiatives, offers training for college women.
Finally, the women’s movement must do a better job communicating the importance of gender in political contexts. The last half century has witnessed dramatic changes in the nation’s willingness to elect female leaders. When women run, women can win. But the challenge now is to convince more women of that fact, to address the obstacles in their way, and to support those who make gender equity a political priority.
The 2016 presidential campaign drew attention to the generational schism among women, particularly among those who support a progressive agenda. Many young female voters told pollsters that they just don’t think women’s underrepresentation is that important. We need better responses. That someone with Trump’s attitudes toward women could become the leader of the free world should alarm us all.