This past week, Hillary Clinton made history when she became the first woman to secure the nomination of a major party for president of the United States. While the competition with Senator Bernie Sanders was more challenging than most expected, Clinton’s victory is decisive—she received more than three million more votes, the majority of pledged delegates, and more than ten times the number of super delegates.
In a powerful speech following the elections on Tuesday, Clinton called her victory a milestone that belonged to generations and, indeed, it is hard to overstate the significance of this ‘first’. Not only is Hillary Clinton the only woman to become a major party nominee, but she is also, remarkably, the only woman ever to win a single primary race at the state level. Further, only two women have ever been nominated as vice-president of the United States, neither of whom won.
The United States ranks 97th internationally for women’s political representation, and women comprise just 20 percent of legislators at the federal level. Change has been slow, increasing by less than four percentage points per election since Clinton’s first ran for nomination eight years ago.
The U.S. falls far behind many other countries—both friend and foe. Margaret Thatcher led the United Kingdom as prime minister nearly 40 years ago, and India and Israel both had women prime ministers 50 years ago. Benazir Bhutto first served as Pakistan’s prime minister in 1988, and Angela Merkel has been leading Germany for more than 10 years. But the under-representation of women in politics is a global phenomenon. According to the United Nations, in 2015, women held the post of head of government in just 10 countries and head of state in another 11.
Even here at home, gender parity in cabinet and a record number of female premiers in recent years can’t overshadow the slow progress we’ve made. Following last fall’s federal election, just 26 per cent of our MPs are women and Canada currently ranks 62nd in the world. At this rate, it will or could be another 90 years before we reach parity among our federally elected legislators. Yes, we’ve had a female leader. In 1993, Kim Campbell became our first and only woman prime minister, but we should not forget that she was not elected to the post and served just four months. We, like our counterparts to the south, have a long way to go.
After clinching the nomination this week, Clinton has the potential to change the face of politics in the United States and around the world. But the road to the presidency is still long. Clinton’s favourability ratings have plummeted in the last year and are the lowest of any presidential nominee in history—except for her Republican competitor, Donald Trump. Still, Clinton will have to beat the unpredictably outrageous and potentially formidable Trump before she breaks what she has called ‘that highest, hardest glass ceiling’. Whether she can, in fact, capture the support of Bernie Sanders supporters, independents, and Republicans who have rejected Trump remains to be seen.
To win the race, Clinton will have to manage concerns about her use of private emails, battle her image as part of the ‘establishment’, and counter the fears that she can’t be trusted. But she also has and will continue to face heightened sexism and gendered double standards on the journey. Trump has criticized her for playing a ‘woman card’—a critique Clinton turned on its head by, in fact, raising money through the sale of a literal ‘woman card in support of Hillary’.
Even among Democrats, Clinton faces unfortunate and pernicious sexism. A group referred to as “BernieBros” have engaged in vicious online misogynist attacks against Clinton and other women. Many have complained about Clinton’s voice as nagging, shrilling, or criticized her for ‘yelling’. Many more continue to refer to the presumptive Democratic nominee by her first name only. Buttons, t-shirts, and signs by supporters of Trump and Sanders read ‘Bern the Witch’ or ‘Trump the Bitch’.
While more than 90 per cent of Americans say they are ready for a woman president, many men do not like and will not vote for Hillary Clinton. A poll in March found that Clinton’s favourability is 15 per cent lower among men than it is among women. In particular, men who identify as Caucasian and/or have less education, are far more likely to support Trump than Clinton, something many are now calling Clinton’s ‘man problem’.
Without a doubt, this week marks a milestone—but Clinton’s victory is far from secure, and the journey far from complete, as is the case for women’s equal representation in politics the world over.
This article was co-authored by Grace Lore, UBC political scientist & EV senior researcher & Nancy Peckford, Equal Voice’s executive director.
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