Millions of women are waiting for Hillary Clinton to shatter the highest proverbial “glass ceiling,” and become the first female president of the United States.
But even if she loses, the bruising, ugly 2016 election year will still be a big moment in feminist history. While we’ve focused on the candidate in a white, suffragette-inspired pantsuit, a roster of powerful, diverse women emerged from the bitter, polarizing fight, from Megyn Kelly, Ivanka Trump and Ana Navarro to Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Ghazala Khan. The conversation about women in America changed, in a twisted way, thanks to Donald Trump: Ignited by a barrage of hate, disrespect and objectification, a discussion about the way we treat and talk about women took center stage in 2016.
Trump, although surrounded by women carrying important roles in his campaign, from Ivanka, one of his most important advisors, to Hope Hicks, his press secretary and right-hand woman, to Kellyanne Conway, the first female campaign manager for a GOP nominee, has polled terribly with women voters from the very beginning. He’s earned strike after strike, from criticizing Carly Fiorina’s looks during the primaries to the infamous Access Hollywood tapes. Trump’s rise, coupled with Clinton’s historic run as the first female nominee of a major party, introduced blatant disdain of women into the national political discourse.
The candidate himself set the example: he already had a history of insulting women “fat,” “slobs,” “pigs” or “disgusting,” and he barely reined in his impulses during the campaign, calling a number of women who disagree with him “crazy,” making disparaging comments about their looks, or concocting bizarre menstruation-related insults. His supporters followed suit with their favorite slogan: “Trump that bitch.” So on one hand, Trump led to this unleashing of public woman-hating. But on the other, it often backfired on Trump, and led to an unprecedented, and, as it turned out, unfortunately much needed, discussion about how to to talk to and about women.
The leaked Access Hollywood video sparked the biggest backlash against Trump, with prominent members of his party turning away from their candidate. Several women came out accusing Trump of sexual assault in the past, inspiring thousands of women to speak out on social media and in public about their experiences. Hotlines dedicated to helping the victims of sexual violence and abuse experienced a 33% spike in calls following the Post’s revelations. Finally, the nation was having a somewhat open discussion about the prevalence of rape culture. “Donald Trump has almost single-handedly re-energized the women’s movement in this country around the issue of sexual assault and rape,” head of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards told Politico.
Of course, this came at a terrible price: Election-related anxiety has been particularly high among women, Time reported. For many, it resurfaced memories of traumatic events. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito revealed in October that she was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The revelation about Trump was both a trigger of her trauma and a pretext to speak out:
Statements like Viverito’s point to something crucial: unlike most of public discourse, which is controlled by men, the conversation about Trump’s misogyny was led, owned and re-appropriated by the women he attacked, women of all kinds of backgrounds, women declaring that the “pussy grabs back,” women proudly calling themselves “nasty.”
Megyn Kelly, largely thanks to her shrewd skewering of Trump, emerged as the top journalist at her right-leaning network. While top male Republicans condemned Trump for his comments, they did not withdraw their support for their candidate—but female lawmakers backed up their words with action. GOP pundit Ana Navarro riled against Trump in the days following the release of the tapes, and on Monday, Nov.7, she announced she was voting for Clinton. On the Democratic side, Michelle Obama, who already masterfully jabbed at Trump at the DNC, destroyed him in deeply personal, poignant remarks while stumping for Clinton, billed as the best speech of the 2016 campaign. Elizabeth Warren, already one of the most influential Democratic lawmakers, who is poised to become even more important after the election, became perhaps one of the sharpest Trump critics, striking back at him with his weapon of choice: Twitter. When Trump attacked Ghazala Khan, the mother of a Muslim-American soldier who died in Iraq as a war hero, for being silent at her husband’s side during the DNC, Khan came out with a powerful op-ed telling him that he “knew nothing of true sacrifice.”
In addition to the national election, Trump’s behavior could have some very tangible effect on down-ballot races. His ascendance coincided with an election that could bring the number of women in both chambers to a record high—and female Democratic candidates, who face some of the most competitive races in the election, are harnessing the opportunity to point out that he represents precisely what the GOP does not get about women.
Indeed, for Trump and the Republican party, it would have been wise to figure out a better way of reaching of women, who have become perhaps the most important voting bloc in the 2016 election. Unmarried women, a rising political force, vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and are drivers of turnout in almost every demographic, points out Rebecca Traister in her book “All the Single Ladies.” Republicans have been also losing another subset of the female vote: college-educated white women. This election will likely see the largest voting gender gap in history: it could be as large as 25 points, if polls are any indication. Nate Silver at 538 estimates that if only women voted, 458 electoral college votes would go to Clinton, and a mere 80 would go to Trump. Silver argues that if Trump loses, it will be because women voted against him.
During the general election campaign, in the rare moments when both sides focused on substance, traditionally-defined “women’s issues” were a prominent point of discussion, largely because Clinton decided to fully embrace her gender as a political asset, contrary to her first run for president in 2008.
Trump’s terrible standing among women, and Clinton’s emphasis on providing American parents with paid family leave forced her opponent’s hand to come out with his own plan, branded and pushed by his daughter Ivanka. Suddenly the last major economy without paid leave was discussing a maternity leave plan from a Republican candidate. The policy, seemingly a step in the right direction, is actually deeply flawed—but it became something the GOP, for whom maternity leave was far off the radar, would have to reckon with.
Whatever the end result, when the dust settles, American women will emerge from the painful 2016 election scarred, but empowered. They may have a female president, and a Senate where a quarter of the lawmakers are women. Or they might face the most chauvinist White House in recent memory—but, with a roster of women leaders ready to fight for them, they will be prepared. And, to some degree, united.