“We just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet.”
-Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Convention, July 26, 2016
By Katie Toth
I’ll be honest: When I heard that battle cry from Hillary Clinton after her nomination as the first female presidential nominee of a major party, I rolled my eyes.
It’s just instinct at this point. For me—and, I suspect, other non-Americans looking in—I’ve never been sure why barriers to political leadership in the United States are inherently harder, or its office is inherently higher, than similar roles in the United Kingdom, Pakistan, or Argentina. The whole “highest, hardest glass ceiling” thing rings as hollow to me as when Clinton says “America is great, because America is good.”
But I’ve been trying to set some of that cynicism aside, for the sake of “female empowerment.” From the adorable crying mom who got to vote for a woman presidential candidate for a major party for the first time (awwww!), to that deeply-uncomfortable rap video of Lena Dunham in a sensual pantsuit (nooooo!), the 2016 election has been big on this motif. A win for Hillary, we’re told, would be a win for women in politics across the board.
When it comes to how the first female president could affect other women in politics, a couple of analysts have quantified that promise. We won’t know until four years from now if Clinton’s run will affect future political candidates, but one researcher suggests that after a female leader is elected in a country, about 4% more women join the legislature in later elections.
And a strong showing for Clinton could could help female Democrats running for office this year, too—like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois or Deborah Ross in North Carolina. These women, and others, could be part of a legislative push in this election that brings up the number of women in the Senate to 24 or more, including at least three women of color.
This marks the highest number of women in the Senate in history. And 167 women are running for the House, making another record. “While outcomes are uncertain, analysts predict the number of women in the House for the 115th Congress that convenes January 3 will exceed the current 84,” according to the same AP article.
However, these “records” are part of a series of small changes that simply aren’t enough to revolutionize women’s representation in politics—even if a Clinton win could offer a small boost in a few years.
“We’re pretty likely to increase [the number of women in office] this year, but we’re going to increase it incrementally as we have done in past election cycles,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for Women In Politics. “We net a couple of women each cycle and that means the pace of change is fairly slow.”
We could end this election with 24 women in the Senate. But given that there are 100 seats, that’s still nowhere near gender parity. And sure, 167 women were nominated for U.S. House races. But in 2012, that number was 166. That means in four years, there is just one more woman running.
That disparity is magnified when we look at women of color trying to win these races. According to new research by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, women of color formed 6% of Democratic candidates and 1% of Republican candidates for office across all levels of politics.
“We’re not going to reach parity in terms of women and men for decades unless something significant changes,” says Aimee Allison, senior vice president of the progressive political action group PAC+. “It’s just drips [of water] when we really actually need a flood.”
Never mind fawning over the presidency. There is a real roadmap for the United States to change the lack of electoral representation. That pathway is illuminated by formerly-colonized nations, which have seen some of the fastest leaps in political representation over the past 10 years.
Take Bolivia, for example, where women make up 53% of its parliament. The country has quotas requiring political parties to include a certain percentage of women in their candidate lists and internal structures. Or Rwanda, which rebuilt its constitution after genocide ripped apart the country in the 1990s and mandated a 30% quota for women’s seats in all decision-making bodies. The country is now home to a parliament of 64% women—by far the biggest proportion of women in any national legislature. The quota formed a jumping-off point to get women in office, but the country blew past it and kept electing women to lead.
Indeed, Rwanda and Bolivia have their own problems with sexism and human rights, but their commitment to increasing women in political leadership puts America to shame.
“The reality is the U.S. ranks behind 95 countries for representation of women. And in 1995 we ranked 46th,” says Cynthia Terrell, of women’s political equality group Representation2020. She adds:
“When I mention that, people are just so shocked and surprised. People think we’re doing really well here—we’re a ‘leader of democracy.’ But in fact we are trailing behind not just on women’s representation, but also on voter turnout and on meaningful voter representation of all kinds.”
Given the historical backlash in the 1970s and 1980s against affirmative action, demographic quotas in the United States can be a hard sell. Conservatives “took the terms ‘quotas’ and ‘affirmative action’ and made them bad words,” says PAC+’s Allison. “The right wing was very effective in making it seem unfair when actually, it was trying to correct a two-century-long unfair system.”
That’s why it would be key to frame any kind of quotas or affirmative action as part of a broader struggle to right ongoing wrongs and level the playing field. “What a reinvigorated movement of women that’s around a justice frame could do is reclaim those approaches,” Allison says. “I think it’s time for us to revisit things that were tried . . . and make [them] relevant for today.”
Representation2020’s Terrell sees the disagreement with quotas as part of a “Horatio Alger mythology” in the United States: the idea that anyone can pull their way up from their bootstraps, and ascend into a seat of power. “I think Americans want to believe that,” she says. “We haven’t really come to terms with the fact that we have systems that disadvantage people.” For Terrell, the answer to America’s emotional baggage would be to focus less on mandatory women’s representation and more on what she calls “voluntary targets.” These would be set by party agendas, PACS, and donors deciding who to recruit and support.
“Parties want to be seen as bringing women into their ranks,” she says. The Democratic and the Republican National Committees both have their own rules about gender parity when it comes to their internal structures. So why shouldn’t they expand that habit to affect how they endorse candidates?
Then there are other structural shifts that are less sexy than winning the presidency—but could make it easier for women to participate in politics.
A 2011 report, for example, found that the long hours and erratic schedules of legislative politics can be particularly challenging for women who still shoulder the majority of family caregiving responsibilities. To remedy that, some governments have created onsite childcare facilities, and have scheduled their legislative sessions to be more family-friendly.
It’s not just in the legislature where these reforms are critical. It’s also at the ballot box. For example, women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce, which often includes service jobs and hourly shift work, so it can be harder for them to carve out time in the work day to vote. That’s despite the fact that their bosses are legally obligated to let them do so. An election-day holiday for everyone could free up more women to go to the polls without the hassle. And ending prohibitive voter ID laws could particularly help engage more women, who are more likely to change their names after they marry or divorce.
According to Terrell, it’s these systemic changes that could ultimately produce results more significant than the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election: genuine parity across the political and geographic spectrum, and a political system where everyone has a more equal say. According to her:
“I think we get caught up in the frenzy of individuals, and we just don’t think about the systems and how systems produce different outcomes. We are continually striving to make better iPhones, and better microwaves, and better cars . . . but we rarely examine the systems that elect people to our legislative bodies with any regularity or consistency.”
These kinds of changes would only solve part of the problem, of course. Making legislatures welcoming for non-binary or genderqueer people is also key. But it’s a start.
Ultimately, it would be absurd to suggest that this isn’t a history-making election. This 102-year-old lady, who was born before any women were even allowed to vote, just cast a ballot for a woman to become the nation’s president. Those kinds of moments deserve to be celebrated. And if the idea of thousands of young girls knowing they, too, could become president doesn’t make you smile a wee bit, you just might have no heart.
And if Donald Trump wins? Well, that will be, shall we say, historic in its own unique way:
But instead of just celebrating solo glass-ceiling-shatterers like Hillary Clinton, it’s crucial to examine how our government structures prop up those barriers.
Then we wouldn’t just be putting cracks in the glass ceiling; we would finally have destroyed it altogether.