Hillary Clinton didn’t just put cracks in the glass ceiling tonight. She shattered it. Whatever your politics, that is a momentous moment that will go down in history books.
At this point in the election — at this point in Clinton’s decades-long career — it's easy to see her nomination as expected and obvious. She was the frontrunner for the Democrats from the moment the primary season began.
I’m 31, and she has been a household name in American politics for most of my life. I knew who Clinton was when I was entering second grade. More than 90 percent of Americans already know who she is.
This can all make it easy to lose sight of the fact that something remarkable just happened. A woman has won a major American political party’s presidential nomination. This has never happened before.
Even in 2016, the top spots in most fields remain dominated by men. Women make up just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives. Women are 14.6 percent of health care’s executive officers. In law firms, women are 15 percent of equity partners. And there has never, of course, been a female president of the United States.
Women graduate from college and graduate programs at higher rates than men — but the barriers and gender norms that keep them out of leadership positions are real. Consider the fact that potential female candidates for office are 15 times more likely to say they manage most of the child care in their homes than potential male candidates.
The progress women have made in recent years is undeniable. One 102-year-old delegate at the Democratic convention, Jerry Emmett, cast Arizona’s votes for Clinton. When she was born, women couldn’t even vote. Now one is the frontrunner for the presidency. But there is still so, so far to go, and so many ways American women remain underrepresented.
Women remain significantly underrepresented in politics
Women only make up about 20 percent of the members of Congress. About one in five of our currently serving legislators are women.
That matters in ways that aren’t symbolic. Study after study has shown that women of both political parties are more likely to pursue legislation that addresses women’s issues. A study from Georgetown political scientist Michele Swers finds that liberal female legislators co-sponsored an average of 10.6 bills related to women’s health — an average of 5.3 more than their liberal male colleagues.
"Women in Congress are just more likely to prioritize issues that have a direct connection to women — violence against women, family leave policy, those kind of things," Swers says. "The more you can directly connect the consequence to women, the more you see female legislators getting involved."
It's no surprise that Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was the one who made sure the Affordable Care Act would cover birth control and other women’s health care at no cost to the patient — or that women senators from both parties worked together to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
You can only imagine how different the political debate would look if women had equal representation in government.
But politics, it turns out, looks a lot like the rest of corporate America. Women’s presence becomes sparser in leadership positions. National Journal recently found that women make up 47.8 percent of staff assistants in the House of Representatives but only 33 percent of the chiefs of staff.
What’s the solution to increasing women’s representation in leadership? More role models is a good start.
Ironically, at this moment women’s interest in political office appears to be waning. Political scientist Jennifer Lawless ran studies in 2001 and 2011 asking potential candidates for office — lawyers, businesspeople, activists — about their interest in running for office.
Between 2001 and 2011, men’s interest in politics stayed roughly the same. But women’s interest in pursuing elected office — which began lower than men’s — actually fell by 22 percent.
Lawless hypothesizes that some of this had to do with the 2008 election, where Clinton and Sarah Palin were mercilessly and relentlessly nitpicked for how they looked, how they sounded, and what they wore. Women may have looked at the presidential race and thought, Running for public office? No, thank you.
At the same time, there does seem to be one thing that encourages more women to run for office: seeing other women serve in office.
Matt Yglesias recently wrote about research from Amelia Showalter that looked at what happens when voters elect more women to political office. Showalter's research suggests that electing women to higher-profile positions appears to encourage other women to run for office — and win.
Separately, political scientists have found that young girls, even adolescents, are more likely to indicate an interest in running for office during years when more women are running in prominent political races.
We don't know what happens to women’s political ambition when they see another woman run for president. We can’t know because it's never happened before. Researchers haven’t been able to study it. But starting tonight, that’s all about to change. That’s a big deal.