Watching a woman run for president has been emotional in ways I quite honestly did not expect. I didn’t used to think it would be a big deal to have a woman as our president. And then she lost.
On Tuesday night and into this morning, I’ve caught myself feeling much more emotional about her defeat than I would have expected. It hit me how much I had begun to care about a woman serving as president, becoming the face of political power in America. I had read up on the research of why this matters in tangible ways, how women govern differently and can re-shape perceptions of who can be powerful.
I’d learned the research. I was heartened by it. And then I watched it slip away.
And it’s not just me. This morning particularly, I’ve heard from lots of people — friends, relatives, readers — who weren’t huge Clinton fans. They may have voted for her but didn’t find her especially exciting as a candidate. And they are devastated to see a woman lose her bid to become the first woman president.
Earlier this week I started working on this cartoon. And it was about something much different: how a woman in the White House would affect young girls, what it would change to have a role model in such a position of power. I spent a lot of time reading academic studies about what changes when women govern.
What I found was a powerful body of research showing that the way society views women fundamentally changes when more women move into positions of political power.
Parents’ aspirations for their children change when they see more women in government, serving as role models for a possible future. Kids’ aspirations get higher, too. Girls start to believe they can achieve more, and they start wanting to achieve more. Women become more willing to speak up against crimes committed against them, and law enforcement is more likely to listen and take action.
This isn’t because women legislators pass different policies (although that does happen, too). The changes in how society views women seem to stem from making citizens rethink their traditional picture of power as more women officials serve as a new model. “It is the fact that they were there — that is the thing that would matter,” says Lakshmi Iyer, an economist at the University of Notre Dame who has studied the topic.
I thought this would be a cartoon about a woman winning the presidency. I thought I was reading the research about what would happen when Clinton was the one who was there, as the new face of the most powerful office in our nation.
But it turns out I was doing something quite different. I was writing a cartoon and a story about what millions of young girls across the country were losing.
Clinton would have been a new type of role model — and role models matter
The first time I recognized that I had something close to a role model, I was an impossibly dorky 15-year-old who wanted nothing more than to win a speech and debate tournament.
I was the quiet new kid on the team — but then Katie showed up. She was a redheaded senior who did win awards. I was in awe.
Katie ended up taking me under her wing. She drove me to Sears to buy my first "power suit," a flimsy gray skirt and jacket. She sat next to me on the school bus that took us to debate tournaments. She invited me to spend late nights at the local Denny’s after the tournaments, analyzing our performance. She made the thing I really, really wanted seem possible, because she was doing it.
I wore the power suit. I won awards. I got good at public speaking and became a more confident competitor. I wouldn’t, of course, tell Katie I thought she was a role model, because I was a 15-year-old striving to be less dorky. But she was important in my life because she was doing the thing I wanted to do. She showed me I could do it too.
I didn’t know it at the time, but academic research shows that people like Katie are incredibly important to how women behave. It suggests that having a woman as president could have contributed to a shift in how the rest of society views women — and how women themselves behave.
Seeing women in positions of power changes our reality
In 1993, India passed a law mandating that one-third of local government positions be reserved for women politicians.
The mandate took effect at slightly different times across the country, due to some variation in when elections were held. And this created a perfect natural experiment for researchers, who could see how the areas that got the gender quota first looked different from the ones that didn’t.
The results were stunning. Parents started to think about their daughters differently.
One of these studies was published in the journal Science in 2012. Researchers asked parents in India lots of questions about how they thought about their sons and daughters — whether they thought they should complete their high school education, for example, or if they should pick the occupation that their future in-laws preferred.
Before the gender quotas started, there were stark differences. The researchers found that parents universally did not want a son’s future in-laws to pick his occupation — but only a quarter of parents opposed such a move for their daughters.
But after villages experienced two election cycles under the quota system, that expectations gap began to shrink. Parents began expecting more of their daughters, too.
The gap in how many parents thought sons should pick their own professions but not daughters shrank by 10 percentage points.
Adolescent girls in those areas became less likely to want to be housewives, too — and also more likely to say they could see themselves as serving in elected office.
Girls still spent more time on housework than boys, even after the quota system took effect — but the gap between the two genders did decline by 18 minutes. And the gap in educational attainment of young boys and girls closed completely.
This didn’t happen in the areas that did not have the gender quota. Something clearly was changing in the places that women came into office, and it seemed to be the existence of new female role models.
As the researchers concluded, “It is [the presence of women as] positive role models for the younger generation that seems to underlie observed changes in aspirations and educational outcomes of adolescent girls."
Women who weren’t in office gained power too
Another study of India’s quota system, published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Science, found that women became more willing to report assaults and rapes when they were served by women politicians — and law enforcement became more willing to listen.
These findings came from Iyer, the Notre Dame economist. She looked at how crime statistics changed as more women came into government under India’s quota system. When she first started reviewing the data, she found something startling: When women served in government, the reported numbers of rapes and kidnapping went way, way up.
“This was shocking to us,” she says. “I spent a month checking that I had not made any data mistakes.”
As Iyer dug deeper into other data sets of survey research, she got a clearer picture of what was happening. It didn’t seem that crimes were actually increasing at all. Rather, female victims were becoming more willing to report their crimes to law enforcement. Victims reported that law enforcement was more receptive to investigating the charges, too. Iyer’s research finds that arrests for rapes increased 18 percent after the quota for women in government came into effect.
There wasn’t any evidence that women legislators changed crime reporting laws. Instead, the most powerful thing about women rising to power was just the act of doing it.
“The fact that there is a person of the same gender, in a position of influence, makes them feel more empowered,” Iyer says. “It’s not that crime policies change. It’s what it looks like to be in power that changes.”
There is a tangible loss for young girls across the country
The academic research on India clear: Society changes for the better when there are more women in elected office serving as role models.
The results of the 2016 election are also clear: The United States will not have a woman serving as president next year. It can be a struggle to hold those two facts together.
When I was a teenager competing on a high school debate team, I had a sense of what I wanted: mostly, to be good at high school debate.
I didn’t fully understand how to do it — how to stand calmly in a room where the audience focused on my words and arguments — until I saw someone else model the behavior. Katie shaped my aspirations by showing me what was possible, in a very tangible and real way. She turned something theoretical into something real. That’s what role models do.
There was this one line in Clinton’s concession speech Wednesday morning that just devastated me. It was when she told the crowd to remain optimistic about the prospects of a woman serving as president — that this was not where the bid ends.
Clinton is right: A woman will undoubtedly run for the presidency again, and it may come sooner than we expect right now. Girls then will get a new role model, one who indicates that they do belong at the top — that the presidency is theirs too. But there is a tangible loss for girls everywhere that the day they get that role model will not be today.