When Hillary Clinton announced she would run again for president of the United States, the world began to talk about sex. About Clinton’s sex – the fact that she was a woman seeking one of the most powerful jobs in the world. American newspaper and magazine editor Donna Ladd said it would be “cool” to have a female president. Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill said most Americans “know it’s past time” for a woman in the White House and that it’s “important for young women and girls to hear the words ‘Madam President’.”
Clinton herself asked a roomful of people at a dinner in March, “Don’t you someday want to see a woman president?” Just last week during the Democratic presidential candidate debate, Clinton argued that being the first female president would be “quite a change” and that despite her ties to Bill and Barack, she “can’t think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president.”
However some, like The Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman, have argued that while there are “loads of good reasons” to vote for Clinton, “absolutely none of them have anything to do with her gender.” To be fair, Freeman was pushing back against a “reductive characterisation” of Clinton as primarily, or even solely, a woman when she has “so many impressive achievements on her CV beyond her sex chromosomes.”
But it’s concerning that there’s still some reluctance to acknowledge that Clinton entering the Oval Office—as a President rather than a President’s wife—would be a potent symbol for women and girls around the world. We can’t ignore the reality that there’s never yet been a female POTUS. Politics should be about inspiring people, and about leadership. A woman as president would inspire many women and girls. Taking on a role which has never before been held by a woman is leadership.
In other words, Clinton’s gender is an entirely legitimate reason to support ‘Hillary 2016’. It shouldn’t diminish her as a candidate. It shouldn’t erode her policy clout. We shouldn’t have to ignore the facts and pretend that a history-making result wouldn’t be significant, just so that a candidate can be taken seriously.
Of course Clinton would have to prove herself the best candidate, based on her past experience and her ideas for the future. But if she clears those hurdles, then the fact that she’s a woman is a spectacular extra reason to support her. It’s in addition to her political credentials, which have arguably already been established through decades of experience and brutally hard work.
As CNN put it, Clinton’s challenge is to “[lay] out a precise campaign vision that connects with all voters, while generating excitement and anticipation over the possibility of making history.”
Hillary Clinton has called the office of president the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” Smashing it would bring plenty of broken glass down on her head, but it would let more fresh air flow through for the rest of us. It would be one step towards making it normal.
Unfortunately, the experience of the first female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, shows it is still far from that. For her three years in the role, Gillard experienced “vituperative, ugly, blatant sexism”, as journalist Paola Totaro described it in The Guardian. In one particularly disgusting example, a dinner menu from a fundraiser held by the opposition political party offered “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box.”
Gillard later told The Independent, “My essential view was that it was because I’m the first woman, I’m unusual, and it will wash itself out of the system… It didn’t.” Despite the sustained personal attacks, Gillard reflected in her resignation speech on why it was significant to have been the first female in the role, saying: “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”
The symbolic importance of women in politics applies to the world’s newest democracies, as well as some of the oldest. Just after the Arab Spring, I went to Tunisia to research the role of women in the political revolution. The Ennahda party had just taken power (it has since been forced to take a lesser role in a coalition) and I interviewed the head of the party’s Office of Women and Families, Wassila Zoghlami. She said having women in the party amounted to “recognition of women” and was a “…constant encouragement to other women to participate in the political party.”
As well as helping to break down barriers for other women, female political candidates can also have a significant impact on democratic processes and policy debates. The National Democratic Institute says that, “countries where women are supported as leaders and at the ballot box have a correspondingly low level of corruption.” The Institute also says that post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation begin more quickly and are more sustainable when women are involved. Clinton has acknowledged this, saying that when women are involved in politics “you’re more likely to have democracy…stability and prosperity.” The question of whether this applies to Clinton specifically will be debated during the campaign. But it’s certainly another reason to support effective female candidates.
Hillary Clinton has been much more willing during this campaign to allude to her gender. And if Clinton herself has put the topic on the table, we shouldn’t hide it under the tablecloth. In last week’s presidential debate, Clinton painted a picture of a world in which “fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you, too, can grow up to be president.” Pointing out the obvious in The Guardian, former Clinton aide Melanne Verveer said “the fact that [Clinton’s] a woman escapes no one.” Verveer adds: “Were she to truly break the glass ceiling it would be symbolically impactful…and she would be a model for so many women around the world.”
Pass me a ballot paper, pronto.
Article by: Ann-Marie Wilcock
Ann-Marie is a humanitarian and a communications specialist with more than 15 years of experience in strategic communications and advocacy, journalism and public policy development. She has worked for the UN in Palestine and as part of the international responses to the Nepal earthquakes and Myanmar floods. She has also worked as a communications advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières in Pakistan.
For more of Ann-Marie’s work, follow her on Twitter @AnnMarieWilcock and Instagram @amwilcock