A woman's place is in the White House: why we still need a female president

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Following defeat in New Hampshire and with Super Tuesday looming, every vote is crucial for Hillary Clinton. Stylist argues why we still need a female president

Words: Helen Lewis
Illustration: Justin Metz

At his election night celebration in 2008, Barack Obama stood in front of 240,000 people, and told them a story about a 106-year-old woman called Ann Nixon Cooper who had voted that day. “She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky,” he told the euphoric crowd, “when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.”

When Obama won the American presidency, it was rightly hailed as an historic moment. For generations of children growing up in a country moulded by slavery and still scarred by racial inequality, the sight of an African-American family in the White House carried a powerful message: the colour of your skin doesn’t determine your destiny.

Now, eight years later, the person Obama beat to secure the Democratic nomination that year is a whisker away from the White House. If elected as the 45th president of the United States, Hillary Clinton would be the first female commander-in-chief. A country whose founding fathers declared that “all men are created equal” might finally be able to say all women are, too. 

Having a woman in the White House would represent an incredible breakthrough in the global political world, which has long been dominated by men. By 2014, 79 out of 142 countries studied by the World Economic Forum had still never had a female leader. In Britain today, just seven of the 22 people in the Cabinet are female. Yet the evidence supporting the ripple effect of a female president – indeed any woman in a position of power – is obvious. As Caroline Heldman, associate professor of politics at Occidental College in LA revealed in the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, at seven years old, boys and girls are equally likely to say they want to be president when they grow up. But by the age of 15, a yawning gap has opened up, with far fewer girls than boys aspiring to the top job. 

Just the simple image of a woman in power has been proven to have a profound effect. A Swiss study in 2013 found that female students spoke for longer – a sign of dominance – when asked to give a speech in a room with a poster of Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel on the wall, compared with students who had a poster of Bill Clinton or none at all. And in another study from India, parents living in areas with long-serving female leaders were 25% more likely to report having ambitious educational goals for their daughters. “Seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions,” said economist Esther Duflo, who led the research. 

Despite this, it’s surprising how little enthusiasm there is for President Hillary Clinton. As we approach Super Tuesday on 1 March – the day when 13 states vote on which candidates they want to run for president – Clinton is struggling to gain momentum, even though many people still assume she will eventually win the Democratic nomination and, in turn, the presidency. In New Hampshire for example, her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders gained 60% of the vote while she got just 38%. At a time when shouts for equality of the sexes have never been louder, why do some people seem to be losing enthusiasm about the prospect of the first female president?

Among right-wingers of course, the anti-Clinton feeling is understandable. But the grouchiness about her candidacy from those who might seem like her natural supporters – feminists and left-wingers – is harder to fathom. Women, particularly young women, aren’t buying the argument that it’s in their best interests to break the ultimate glass ceiling. The internet is on fire with accusations that it’s wrong to “vote with your vagina” (first question: how would you hold the pen?). And while the pros and cons of positive discrimination have often been debated, in this instance, it’s at odds with how we view other voters. There’s talk that “the Latino vote” might go to Republican Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio because of their Hispanic roots, so why is there horror at the thought that women might vote as a group?

In any case, the evidence suggests they won’t. In the New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders beat Clinton by 59 points among voters aged 18 to 29. And at a rally just before the count, Emily Ratajkowski – the Gone Girl actress who danced nearly naked next to Robin Thicke in the Blurred Lines video – told a crowd of Sanders supporters: “I want a female president so that I can say to my daughter one day, you too can become president of the United States. I believe in that symbolic importance. But . . . I want my first female president to be more than a symbol, I want her to have politics that can revolutionise.”

That’s the key argument of the Clinton critics. What’s the point of having a woman in the White House if she doesn’t do anything for other women? Her husband’s welfare policies hurt poor mothers, and she has supported foreign wars which killed women and children. Why should feminists support someone just because they share the same chromosomes? 

And yes, these critics have a point. Not all female leaders directly improve women’s lives. During her time as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher did conspicuously little for other women, both in terms of policies and female representation. She appointed only one other woman to the Cabinet in her 11 years in office, for example. But just having her in Number 10 was a powerful symbol to generations of children. I’m too young to remember Thatcher’s era properly, but I spent my childhood watching Betty Boothroyd when she was speaker of the House of Commons, telling pompous male MPs to shut up. That told me that a woman could be taken seriously in politics. As the saying goes: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. 

This problem isn’t limited to politics. Role models matter in every area of life. In a poll conducted by BA last year, while many boys said they dreamed of being a pilot, nearly two thirds of girls cited it as a ‘career only for men’. The number of female pilots with BA? 242 compared to 3,764 male pilots (the highest in any UK airline by the way). 

And in a huge survey by The Prince’s Trust and YouGov in 2010, it was discovered that 67% of young people with no role model of the same gender are more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts. Even once we’re in business, 75% of UK working women aged 18-60 claim they had few or no female role models in their organisation – hardly surprising when less than a quarter of FTSE 100 board members are female, and they are mostly in ‘non-executive’ – less powerful – roles. The effect on the aspirations of young women climbing the ladder is well documented, but what about the impact on the old guard of men hiring those young women? After all, the benefits of positive role models reach beyond those hoping to emulate them. In her 2010 TED talk, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg tells the story of pitching for a business in a private equity firm, and needing to use the loo. The men had no idea where the ladies’ room was in their office – in the year they had been there, no one had ever needed to use it. How many male CEOs are missing out on brilliant female talent because they haven’t had first-hand experience of – surprise, surprise – what women can do in the workplace? It’s depressing – but perhaps no coincidence – that CVs belonging to a “Howard” still get rated higher than a “Heidi”, even if their qualifications and experience are the same. 

So, perhaps there is a case for “voting with your vagina”. Having a woman in the White House would undoubtedly lead to more women entering politics and positions of seniority, and in turn mean more choice for voters in the future. After all, there are still women alive in the US today who were born before women could even vote, let alone aspire to be president. Yet today’s American girls still look at a Congress where only 104 out of 535 members are women, and where Donald Trump jokes about Clinton getting “schlonged” by her opponent. No wonder making progress is so hard. 

Having more women in powerful political positions would also help solve the ‘perfection problem’ – where the lone woman in a situation is expected to represent all women. When she fails at this impossible task, we blame all women. Which is madness. Will Obama’s failure to deliver on much of the promise of his election (closing Guantanamo Bay for one) mean that the ‘experiment’ of having a black president has failed, and we should go back to electing only white people? Hell no. Yet increasingly the rhetoric around Clinton – and other female politicians – is centred on whether they are the perfect female candidate. Real equality means everyone gets the same chances, and sometimes that will mean the chance to make mistakes.

This all suggests Clinton isn’t a strong candidate for women on her own terms. But compared with the likely Republican candidates, she is a feminist dream. Trump, star of the American version of The Apprentice, joked about a female TV host being angry because she was having her period and regularly calls women he disagrees with ugly. Several of the other candidates strongly oppose abortion, and would make it harder for poor women to access healthcare by shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics. Put simply, their policies could kill women.

Even when you stack up Clinton’s record against her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, it looks good. In 1995, she made a ground-breaking speech at the UN, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights”. She used to be regarded as a radical: if her feminist opinions now seem mainstream, it’s only because public opinion has caught up with her.

Of course, not every criticism of Clinton is about feminism. Many don’t like that she supported the war in Iraq, or that she stood by while Monica Lewinsky was trashed as a slut and a gold-digger. (Although show me a woman who doesn’t feel angry towards her husband’s mistress…) Like the majority of presidential candidates, she has raised a huge amount of money – $165m – from individuals and big companies, with many criticising her willingness to accept funding from big drug companies despite declaring that they are one of her biggest enemies. And she has certainly played the game, schmoozing every power player in Washington. Compared with this, Sanders looks like a refreshing change to many. He calls himself a socialist and says big money is ruining politics. For anyone who feels angry about where America is going, he reassures them he is angry too.

Nonetheless, all too often the contest between Sanders and Clinton seems to reveal many of our unconscious biases against women in power. Sanders looks scruffy, and people say it’s “authentic”. But imagine the reaction if Clinton didn’t brush her hair. Sanders declaims like an Old Testament prophet and people applaud his “passion”. If Clinton shouted like that, she’d be attacked as “hysterical”.  

And this applies to all women in politics. Sometimes the insults come from those who should know better – the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi once called Angela Merkel an “unf***able lard arse”. (By any measure, she is a far more successful politician than him.) And let’s not forget the nonsense when David Cameron appointed a record number of women to his Cabinet and the Daily Mail responded by scrutinising their clothes and printing pictures of the “Downing Street catwalk”. Many successful women – in politics and elsewhere – I talk to say that they are worried to go on television because they know their appearance will draw far more comments than anything they say.

Society still struggles to see women as leaders, and that doesn’t just matter for the teeny fraction of us who might make it to a boardroom, or to the top of politics. It matters to every woman going for a promotion at work, and every woman in a sector which is low-paid precisely because it is dominated by women and thus often seen as worthless. As long as we associate femininity with being meek and mild, and see ambition in a woman as a huge turn-off, we’re all screwed.

So yes, electing Clinton won’t fix all sexism in society, but it will send a powerful message: a woman’s place is in the White House – or anywhere else she chooses for that matter. And a generation of girls and women will see her there, and they will find it easier to ignore the next person who tells them to shrink their horizons, not to be bossy, to settle for less – just because they’re female.

Think the American electoral system is complicated? You’re not wrong. Here’s a simple run-down of the important terms to explain how a candidate goes from first-round elections to the White House. It’s time to concentrate, people…

Primaries: The initial stages of choosing a party’s presidential candidate. Most states choose their candidate for the general election in a process similar to the British polling system, with people voting in private ballots. Only people registered with either the Republican or Democratic party can vote, and only between candidates in their own party. 

Caucuses: An old-fashioned way of deciding between presidential candidates, where the general public attend local party meetings and vote by raising hands. Thirteen states (including Kentucky and Kansas) and three territories vote like this.

Super Tuesday: The key voting days in the primary presidential race. On 1 March, 13 states go to the polls, and a further five follow on 15 March, with a winner-takes-all result for Republicans in Florida and Ohio. The last primaries are held on 7 June when five states, including California and New Jersey, go to the polls.

National Convention: The final meeting where a party’s presidential candidate is announced, this year 18-21 July for the Republicans and 25-28 July for the Democrats. Then, at the general election on 8 November a new resident of the White House will finally be decided. Phew.

  • Currently there are 22 female world leaders (not including figurehead monarchs), that’s 6.2% of the total number of political world leaders
  • Of the 142 countries studied by the World Economic Forum in 2014, just 63 have ever had elected female leaders
  • India holds the record for the longest stretches of time with a woman as head of state, with former female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and, later, President Pratibha Patil, serving a combined 21 of the past 50 years in office
  • Sri Lanka was the first country to ever elect a female leader – Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike – in 1960
  • Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, president of Iceland from 1980-1996, is the longest serving elected female leader of any country, serving for 16 years
  • Hillary Clinton’s election would end a nearly 230-year-run of male US presidents

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman

Photography: PA, Corbis, Rex

To read this week's issue of Stylist, download from