This never would have happened if Hillary Clinton were a man. Time and again, reporting through this election, incredulity emerged over watching a highly qualified female candidate face off against a man with zero political experience in a race in which the jabs and name-calling would plummet to dizzying lows. If the gender roles were reversed, no one would give a second thought to a woman with the dearth of experience Donald Trump brings to the presidential office. So then, how much did the misogynistic backlash against Clinton do to dash her chances for the White House?
With election returns still rolling in late into the night, it appeared Trump edged Clinton on electoral college votes, though it was unclear at presstime who had earned the popular count.
Why has it been so impossible, given that women comprise more than half of the nation’s voting-age population and have had the vote for nearly a century, to see a woman secure the presidency or vice presidency?
“It’s always harder for a woman,” says Imelda Aragon, who spent every morning in the weeks up to the election at the Democratic party headquarters on Cerrillos, calling voters in Santa Fe to talk to them about Clinton.
Women now hold less than a quarter of the seats in the US Senate, US House, statewide executive offices including governor and lieutenant governor, state legislatures and mayoral offices, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Just six governors, including New Mexico’s, are women.
“It’s almost mind-boggling to think it’s 2016, and we keep expecting better results without having half of our population represented,” says Clare Bresnahan, executive director of She Should Run. “How do we expect good policy when half of the population is left out of the decision-making process? We believe adding new women will inject new solutions into these problems.”
Women have already held the highest offices in nations like Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. Of America’s 56 presidential elections, 33 of them occurred before women had the right to vote. None before have featured a woman as the nominee from a major political party.
“I think it says something about how far we think we’ve come,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s about a wakeup call about what we consider acceptable or tolerable.”
Part of what stands against women is the perception of an ambitious woman, and it cuts both ways. That women should quietly work in the background toward the success of more charismatic men is an idea shared by men and women alike. Even women have shown reluctance to support a woman—of registered female voters contacted for a CBS poll in September, 80 percent of Democrats were glad to see a woman as a major party nominee for president. Thirty-nine percent of Republicans were.
Campaigning for Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama encouraged men to “look inside” and consider if their objections to her candidacy stemmed from their unfamiliarity with a woman in that role. But there are no doubt more deeply seated issues with women in power.
“When men are ambitious, it’s just taken for granted,” Obama said on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. “’Well, of course they should be ambitious.’ When women are ambitious: ‘Why?’”
Research shows that men and women both respond to ambitious women with contempt, anger and disgust, and that men often react aggressively to women in power. Hence, the “Hillary for prison” t-shirts and the “lock her up” chants.
People don’t give up power easily, and you can see that reflected in this election.
“People don’t give up power easily, and you can see that reflected in this election,” Walsh says. “That whole notion of ‘Make America great again,’ it’s really a time when white men reigned supreme. … Make America great for who? It’s for people who feel they’ve lost some power. Maybe it’s exactly right that that campaign would be the one against a woman nominee.”
“Of course, Hillary Clinton is going to have to run against a man who seems both to embody and have attracted the support of everything male, white and angry about the ascension of women and black people in America,” Rebecca Traister wrote in New York Magazine in May. “This election is a kind of civil war. It’s a referendum on the country’s feelings about inclusion, about women, people of color, and their increasing influence, and how it edges out the white men who have long had an exclusive grip on power.”
A Century of Small StepsA woman slipped into US Congress before women nationally could even cast ballots. Jeannette Rankin was elected in 1916 to represent the state of Montana, which gave women the right to vote in 1914. She went on to help pass the amendment granting women’s suffrage in 1920.
Nearly a century later, we have 84 women in the House and 20 women in the Senate. At that rate, it will take roughly 500 years to see equal representation.
“The march to equality is slow,” Barbara Lee, of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization on women’s races for executive office, wrote in the Boston Globe last year.
Part of why a female president has been so hard to come by is that typically senators and governors become presidents, and the supply of women in those ranks is short. That deficit starts with the few women who run for city councils and state legislatures.
Hillary Clinton herself had to be encouraged multiple times before she agreed to run for Senate in New York state in 1998. For decades, she’d deferred, arguing she wasn’t likeable enough to win.
In so many ways, she’s lived within the same confines as millions of other American women. When she and a friend from Wellesley sat for the LSAT at Harvard, there were few women in a room full of men, who provoked them for taking a spot from a man. She recounted for New York Magazine: “I remember one young man said, ‘If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.’”
She shelved a promising career in Washington DC to join her boyfriend Bill Clinton in Arkansas, where he was teaching law. She’s done “cookie bake-off penance” and added Bill’s last name to her own when his lost re-election bid was blamed on her independence.
Yet, she’s been reluctant to position herself and her victories as symbolic and historically significant.
By some measures, many of her successes have come less through the kind of big-crowd appeal that has worked for her male predecessors, and more through working as women more often do, quietly, patiently and off-center stage. She’s slowly built relationships and coalitions, finding allies in unlikely places—remember, she joined the Senate in 2000 to serve among the Republicans who had voted to impeach her husband.
Obama has joked that in 2008, “She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backward in heels.”
During this presidential race, Trump’s suggestions that she “doesn’t look presidential,” that she’s always screaming, calling her a “nasty woman” during a debate, and, of course, saying she lacks the stamina—a cut toward her membership of the “weaker sex”—are all some of his subtler forms of sexism. Those lines play to the sense of women as ill-equipped to lead, and recruit men made uncomfortable by that prospect.
“Never has a man come this close to the White House who has been so spectacularly unfit for office and so proudly misogynistic. But precisely because Donald Trump is so outlandish and unashamed, we tend to focus on his antics, not on how widespread is the mindset they reveal,” Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation.
“Hillary supporters don’t get cover stories because we think we already know all about them,” she continues. “But what if they’re angrier than we think and readier to do something about it—about rape and rape culture, economic discrimination, abortion rights and the rest of that big deplorable basket of injustice and disrespect women live with? There’s a blatant contradiction between the braggart Trump with his vulgar sexual preening and real-life women with their daily struggles for fairness and dignity.”
Readying for the Giant Leap
What mystifies Mark Asquino, a retired US ambassador now based in Santa Fe, who spent years working in proximity of Clinton at the State Department, is how one of the most qualified candidates he’s seen for president—ever, of any gender—can find herself pitted against a Republican candidate with no political experience.
“What I saw in Hillary was really a strong leader, someone who cares about people and is smart, pragmatic and knows how to get things done,” he says.
From his time as an undersecretary in the Department of State (which was not run by a woman until Madeleine Albright took the helm in 1997), he recalls there was no subject, on the agenda or off, on which Clinton was not informed and capable of competently handling, and no person to whom she failed to show respect.
After retiring in January, he took up campaigning for Clinton, phone banking, canvassing and speaking at house parties about working with her. He points to Trump’s lack of experience, to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement and the nearly identical voting record between Sanders and Clinton. To those who call her crooked, he points out that she’s never been convicted of even the most minor charge of corruption. Then people accuse her of being establishment—more of the same.
“When people talk about Bill Clinton’s failures and try to project them onto Hillary Clinton, that’s the essence of sexism,” he says.
If the roles were reversed and an unqualified, inexperienced woman with multiple divorces and no demonstrated ability to pay her taxes or keep businesses out of bankruptcy (remember the critiques in the GOP of Carly Fiorina’s prowess, or not, as CEO) ran against a man with a solid resume, no one would take her seriously.
New Mexico Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, who early returns show winning her bid for re-election, often asks herself if the question she faces in her candidacy would be asked of a man running for the same office. The answer was decidedly “no” when, while campaigning in 2012, her opponent asked how she’d raise her two children on top of working as a school teacher and serving in the state House.
“That never would have been asked of my husband if he ran—with the same kids,” she says.
Her campaign responded with ’50s-style graphics and a message that declared, “Stephanie can do it all.” It was just too ridiculous not to call it out.
Her vision to run began with what she wasn’t seeing in New Mexico’s state Legislature: anyone who looked like her. She still sees women hesitating to run, and struggling to get comfortable fundraising for their campaigns and even with supporting one another once they’re in office.
“I know that we need to change the discussion, but we also need to help women understand they’re tougher than they think,” she says. Of Clinton, she says, “I love that she’s just made of steel. … As a candidate, I admire that toughness—and there’s nothing masculine about that.”
When Anita Hill’s testimony to the Senate Judicial Committee over Clarence Thomas’s nomination for the Supreme Court was televised, America saw that the committee was entirely white and male; they had no understanding of what it was to be a woman living in a perpetual rain of condescension and sexual harassment. Women got angry at just the right moment—late fall, when they could still register as candidates and recent redistricting putting an unusually high number of seats into play. They seized an opportunity to take a record number of seats in the US House and Senate.
This election could also prove galvanizing, Walsh says: “Perhaps that’s what inspires women to get angry and decide, ‘We’re going to run.’”