Imagining Madam President

If she takes the U.S. presidency, Hillary Clinton may continue to advocate for women’s rights, but her greatest impact on gender equality may be her election itself.

By: /
March 23, 2016
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally event in Saint Louis, Missouri, March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Gallup organization asked Americans in 1937 if they would vote for a female presidential candidate if she were qualified “in every other respect.” Given the norms of the time that are reflected in the question’s wording, it’s far from surprising that close to two-thirds of respondents told pollsters they’d not endorse a woman nominee.

Eighty years after Gallup’s survey, Hillary Rodham Clinton may arrive at the White House as commander-in-chief. Massive social changes during recent decades help to explain that turnaround, as revealed in data showing many voters prefer women candidates. Research on multiple political systems shows one reason for this finding: female contenders for public office are on average more oriented toward local community service than the men they run against – whose careers, in turn, are often driven by matters of personal ambition and party loyalty.

When issues of war and peace jump to the forefront of American civic debate, as will probably happen this fall given the Republican candidacies in play, a gender gap provides Democrats with a significant advantage among women voters. All of this may unfold at a time when electoral turnout in important segments of the U.S. population is higher among females than males.

The likelihood of a woman president raises the crucial question of what difference it makes if Clinton — or another woman as yet unknown — sits in the Oval Office.

In symbolic terms, the effects are bound to be considerable simply because every girl across America would see herself as potentially the top political executive. This cultural message is hard to underestimate, given that Margaret Thatcher’s arrival at 10 Downing Street back in 1979 led to a flood of women seeking entry to the legal profession and political parties in Britain. This pattern unfolded even though Thatcher, unlike Clinton, expressed clear distaste for organized feminism.

"This might renew confidence in the potential for upward mobility."

At the level of social cohesion and trust, a first American woman president succeeding the first black could also prove influential. This trend might renew, at least temporarily, confidence in the potential for upward mobility by challenging a widespread public sense of blocked opportunities. Given that the pathways by which immigrants and members of disadvantaged groups reach higher education and prestigious occupations are now more open in Northern European countries than in the U.S., the social dividend that follows from two diverse American presidents in a row could prove important.

Finally, a Hillary Clinton victory promises to hold substantive consequences. Unlike her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, Clinton brought the perspectives of a domestic human rights activist to the realm of global politics. She entered the 2016 presidential campaign with a consistent track record favouring women’s rights, children’s rights and an assertive U.S. foreign policy built on people-to-people diplomacy. Observations of Obama administration actions since her departure suggest women’s security in the global South no longer commands the prominence it once did, even though Clinton and her allies tried to build that emphasis into the policy machinery of the State Department. Her experiences as secretary of state were consistent with those of other females who attain senior positions of international relations responsibility: her aptitude for the role was widely questioned, so Clinton reached over the heads of decision-makers in order to make a mark independently.

During the first Obama administration, critics maintained that no village on the planet was too small to merit a visit from America’s senior diplomat. Yet Hillary Clinton persisted in her efforts to show that U.S. interests were better advanced by a secretary of state who ventured outside official channels than by someone who spent all her time at formal meetings and receptions. Clinton was widely condemned in 2009, for instance, for spending more time at a women’s housing project in South Africa than with the country’s president.

Especially if she faces Donald Trump in a general election, Clinton will need to draw attention away from the voice, appearance and other lifestyle matters that claim a powerful hold when women run for office.  She could remind Americans of her origins in a Chicago household where her Republican father owned a small drapery business, and of her own grassroots efforts to provide rape crisis services in Fayetteville when she was a law professor at the University of Arkansas. Each of these elements offers a powerful counterweight to the narrative that presents Clinton as little more than a plutocrat in pantsuits from Westchester County.

Judging by her dominance during the Democratic primary season, millions of Americans already view Clinton as qualified to be president. Her uphill struggle for next fall rests in convincing others that she is well-prepared or, at the very least, preferable to the competition.