Let’s be honest: There’s something that feels a little bit off about Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination for president. And that something is Bill Clinton.
There’s this niggling sense that the fact that Clinton benefited too much from her husband’s connections, that there’s something shitty about electing a second Clinton shortly after electing a second Bush. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say this, maybe a friend or a family member. It probably felt a little true to you. I know it felt a little true to me, the first few times I thought about Clinton’s first run back in 2008.
But it turns out I was wrong. To understand why, you need to understand a little bit about the way women actually get ahead in politics. Historically, a large percentage of women who took their countries’ top jobs had male family members in high office first. These family ties played a critical role in overcoming the advantages institutionalized sexism gave their male opponents.
The truth is that it’s really, really hard for women to become the leaders of their countries — especially the United States. That Clinton had Bill wasn’t unfair, or shady. It may well have been necessary.
How nepotism helps women in other countries
Historically, dynasties have been a powerful tool for women seeking to attain political office.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took over after her husband, Néstor Carlos Kirchner. Guyanese leader Janet Jagan became president after the death of her husband, President Cheddi Bharat Jagan.
"Of 56 women leaders [between 1969 and 2009], only 9 have ever held fairly unrivaled authority in the position of president," Farida Farida Jalalzai, a professor at Oklahoma State University, writes in a book on women in the highest office. "All but one of these dominant female presidents ([Ellen] Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia) possess kinship ties to a former executive or opposition force."
Now, these women were all qualified in their own right; many were legislators or otherwise had real government experience. But without these family ties, it would have been even more difficult for these women to break the glass ceiling.
The issue is that when systems are overwhelmingly male-dominated, it's very hard for women to build up the kind of political support networks necessary to fuel a run for the presidency. Being connected by blood or marriage to an already successful man gives a woman access to his support network.
Women can finally leverage the "old boys' club" in her favor.
You can see this not only in the international sphere but in congressional elections in the United States. The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel explains:
Until the 1970s, one of the most common ways for a woman to enter politics was by following her husband. According to Pew Research Center, 90 women served in the House between 1916 and 1980; 34 of them were elected to fill their husband’s seat or replaced him on the ballot after he died. This practice became so common that it had its own term: the "widow’s mandate" or "widow’s succession."
Male party leaders expected these women to quietly carry on their husband’s legacy until the party could find a permanent male successor.
In total, 47 women have been elected or appointed to fill a congressional vacancy created by their husband’s death, according to the Center for Women and Politics.
Since the 1970s, Congress has opened up somewhat for women — but women with husbands in office helped break the congressional glass ceiling. We're now seeing the same pattern, just on a national level.
"It makes sense that Hillary would have had to wait, that Hillary would have had to come in second," University of Texas Austin's Pamela Paxton told Terkel. "She can run, but it’s after Bill. And that absolutely is a product of the fact that there were few women in Congress and there were few women in governorships."
It's hard to imagine a woman winning a presidential primary and election for the first time without some kind of family ties to the political establishment. Clinton's connection to Bill wasn't some kind of unfair advantage; it just puts her on a more level playing field with the men.
Presidencies are even tougher for women than other leadership positions
But this analysis actually understates the challenge for Hillary Clinton. The American system is, in some ways, unique among democracies in being a tough place for a woman to ascend to the top spot.
First and foremost, the United States has a presidential system, not a parliamentary or mixed system (where a prime minister and a president share power).
Study after study has found that women are more likely to 1) become prime minister rather than president, and 2) gain either a presidency OR a premiership when it shares power with another office.
"I analyzed pretty much all the women who have ever run for president around the world," Jalalzai told me in a June interview. "One of the most striking findings was that almost never do women actually win their election contest when they're running for presidencies."
The problem here has to do with gender stereotypes. Prime ministers are only rarely elected by a direct popular vote; in parliamentary systems, people usually vote for parties rather than individuals.
That means a woman who wants to become prime minister takes power by cooperating with members of her party and convincing them to put her in the top job, rather than through grueling national elections. Presidential contests, as Ezra Klein writes, emphasize allegedly "masculine" virtues like oratorical skill and toughness over "feminine" ones like cooperation and consensus building.
Beyond the electoral system, voters see the very office of the presidency in gendered terms.
While prime ministers are seen as representatives of the party, governing by consensus and cooperation, presidents are seen as solitary leaders. Hence why women are more likely to win either presidencies or premierships when they share power in a mixed presidential/parliamentary system: Voters aren't electing a woman as their sole chief executive.
"Executive power is characterized by unity of command, hierarchical arrangements, and — with centralized control — a capacity to act quickly and decisively when circumstances dictate," Beloit College professor Georgia Duerst-Lahti writes. "These factors create circumstances in which women are understood as 'other' in contrast to a masculine norm, and they do so in a way that is predictable inside gender ideology."
Presidential elections, then, activate gendered stereotypes in the electorate. Consciously or subconsciously, voters tend to think that presidents should be men in a way that they don't when it comes to prime ministers.
This helps explain why women have led advanced democracies like the UK, Germany, Israel, and Canada, but not presidential countries like the US and France.
Why the US presidency is even harder than other presidencies
Now, a handful of women have won presidential elections — Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff, is one (though she's currently facing impeachment). So it's not that gendered stereotypes make it impossible for a woman to win a presidential election; it's just a lot harder.
Several things about the US make it harder still.
One such factor, somewhat strangely, is the stability of the American political system. Historically, women are more likely to take over executive positions in countries that have recently experienced or are currently undergoing fundamental crises.
"19 percent of women came to power after a period of political transition, 45 percent came to power in countries with a recent history of instability, and 33 percent after a military takeover," Paxton and University of Pittsburgh's Melanie Hughes write in their book Women, Politics, and Power.
This appears linked to a well-documented effect in the business world called the "glass cliff": Corporations are more likely to appoint women executives when the company is failing or in trouble.
Experimental evidence finds that certain gendered stereotypes — like the idea that women "root for the underdog" out of compassion — lead people to conclude that women are better suited to leadership when things are bad.
The American political system is famously stable, with 227 years of democracy under the same Constitution. So here, would-be women presidents don't really benefit from crisis effects.
Finally, America's unique military might works against women candidates. The United States boasts the most fearsome military in human history. And voters think about electing a president in terms of electing a "commander in chief" with their "finger on the nuclear button."
These are, of course, highly gendered ideas: Leading troops into combat is stereotypically the most masculine of all masculine pursuits. People tend to envision a man in charge of the US military, creating another implicit barrier to a woman being elected.
There's some statistical evidence to back up this idea. According to Jalalzai's research, women are less likely to become executives in nuclear-armed countries: "Nuclear status statistically works against women when we're thinking about women breaking the glass ceiling," she says. This suggests that countries with greater military might are generally more hostile to female leadership, though more research needs to be done to confirm that.
No single one of these barriers makes it impossible for a woman to win the American presidency. But the unique combination of a presidential system, political stability, and overwhelming military strength makes winning the American presidency an astonishingly daunting task for any woman.
So it’s really, really unfair to hold Clinton’s last name against her. Given what American women were up against, it may well have been impossible for a woman without something like Clinton’s connections to take the top job.
As Kerry Howley, the libertarian writer and journalist, put it in the New York Times: “The great feminist promise of a Hillary Clinton presidency amounts to this: If we elect a political wife now, perhaps we won’t have to later.”