If Hillary Clinton is elected president, it could make it harder, not easier, for another woman to become president.
Now, this sounds almost impossible — why would having a woman hold the highest office be "bad" for women? But it’s worth considering. It’s a point that Malcolm Gladwell made more than two years ago in a talk at the New Yorker Festival when he said, "If Hillary Clinton is elected president, it could mean we don’t have a female president for a very long time."
Of course, Clinton, if she were to become president, would display the highest level of female leadership ever in the country; American girls would be able to see a woman do something unprecedented in the US. And that’s huge.
But it also means that Clinton would not be seen as just a president; she will be seen as a female president, in the same way that President Obama was seen as a "black president" at first. And of course we know how that turned out. He was forced to become the first American president to have to prove he is American, and, according to research from Brown University, his presence increased the relationship between "old-school racism" (the belief that black people are lesser and should be discriminated against) and partisan preferences.
Chances are, what happened to the first African-American president is likely to happen to the first female president.
Hillary Clinton hasn’t even been elected and the misogyny lobbed her way is already palpable. Donald Trump has been no exception, interrupting Clinton 51 times during the first presidential debate (that’s more than three times more than she interrupted him), and launching a thinly veiled sexist attack that she doesn’t have the strength, the stamina, or the "presidential look."
Of course, because she’s a woman, Clinton looks like no other president before her, but drawing attention to her looks or age is an implicit way to draw attention to her gender. Pence’s repeated emphasis on Trump's "broad shoulders"(although he denies it) can also be construed as a direct reference to a masculinity Clinton is devoid of.
Sexist attacks have come from all sides, including from the left, with Bernie Sanders’s campaign accusing Clinton of having too many "ambitions" during the primaries. And that assertion doesn’t come from thin air — voters’ discomfort with enterprising women is supported by data from Yale University showing that their preference for a female leader is negatively affected by the perception that she is seeking power. That same effect of course, does not exist for male leaders. Researchers concluded that "participants who believed that [a] female senator had a strong will to power were less likely to vote for her."
And while other male leaders have made mistakes and errors — like when George W. Bush insisted that Iraq had weapons of destruction (it didn’t) or when Bill Clinton said he never had sexual relations with a White House intern (he did) — their actions have rarely been taken as a reflection of their race or gender. No one said, "We can’t ever elect a man for president again," after Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. Of course these presidents were put through the ringer, but their actions did not sound the call for a referendum on white male presidents.
But Hillary Clinton has been fairly vocal about the sexism she’s experienced and expects (in fact it’s already started). And she’s lived through it before: Just look at her approval numbers, which correlate almost perfectly with her level of ambition. When she seeks office, she is not liked, but when she holds a position, her numbers are steadily high.
There is something that bothers us about Hillary asking for more authority. In 2013, when she was secretary of state, her approval numbers were so high that she was graded the most popular politician at the time. Looking at this poll almost seems like a parody today, when her approval numbers are some of the lowest for a candidate in presidential election history. But seeking the nation’s highest office may not increase her popularity; instead, it attracts more scrutiny.
It’s happened before. When Julia Gillard became the first female prime minister of Australia, as Gladwell explains in his talk, she experienced so much sexism that she unleashed a scathing response to her political rival John Abbott enumerating all of the sexist attacks he had leveled against her while she was in office and, more broadly, against female leadership in Australia.
"He stood next to a sign that said, 'Ditch the witch.' I was offended when the leader stood next to a person holding a sign saying I was a man’s bitch," she exclaimed in a 2012 speech that went viral. Gillard may have shattered the glass ceiling in Australia, but little did she know those pieces would come crashing down on her and she’d be left sweeping them up.
Gillard even took it upon herself to pen a letter in the New York Times when Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, saying, "No one called for my execution by firing squad [...], but a radio talk-show host did say I should be put in a bag and dropped in the sea." She said the attacks she sustained weren’t just about her but were more generally about women’s ability to lead, with her opponent Abbott claiming women may be "physiologically unsuited to leadership."
Gillard became what Gladwell calls the token, a phenomenon where a dominant group gives itself a moral license to treat an outsider badly because it considers it a kind gesture to have allowed the outsider to gain authority. It’s kind of like when you let yourself eat a doughnut after the gym, except the gym is electing a woman president and the doughnut is sexist bigotry.
So in other words, we may pat ourselves on the back for electing a female president and think the patriarchy has been dismantled, when in fact that sexism may worsen as a result of electing a woman as head of state.
Instead of ushering in a new era of gender equality, Clinton’s presidency could become a referendum on female leadership. But the good news is that a woman in the highest office could also significantly tip the scales for better female representation in politics at all levels. Clinton said she plans to bring on many women at the top of her administration and could encourage other women to run, engendering what some are calling the "Clinton effect." And then maybe so-called female tokens can finally become a thing of the past.
A Hillary Clinton presidency would likely mean disproportionate scrutiny of female politicians, but as a wave of them create a critical mass, those initial growing pains will eventually lead to a change in culture. The first female presidency could easily hurt in the short term. But that's an unavoidable step in making something new the norm.