The UK has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, two iron-willed Prime Ministers. Germany has Angela Merkel, another formidable woman leader. Even developing countries such as Pakistan and India have had women presidents or prime ministers, yet the US, arguably the most progressive and liberal of the First World countries, has still not elected a woman as President. We ask, why not?
Hillary Clinton not only ran for the office, but came close. Indeed the fact that she got 3 million more votes than Trump leads many people to think of her as the real winner. If not for the antiquated and inefficient system of the Electoral College, she would be president today. She is seen as a pioneer, but how many people know there has been a total of 12 women who have run for President before 2016? And since we’re on the subject of political pioneers, let’s also give credit to Geraldine Ferraro, one of the most respected and beloved women political leaders, whose 1984 nomination for Vice President changed the political landscape for ever for women, spurring the progress that was to follow. Since before 1920 women did not have the vote, the early ones were simply making a gesture, a statement of protest against the entrenched patriarchal system. One pundit suggested that if the US has not elected a woman president yet, it certainly isn’t for women’s lack of trying. On the other hand, another opined that the US has failed to produce a female president because “only one remotely serious woman has run for this position.” Thus, while for some critics women have tried often and failed, for another they need to try harder and more frequently—a difference of opinion that illustrates why it’s difficult to answer the question of why it has not happened yet. A more plausible reason was suggested by a study that reported that conservatives still believe that men make better political leaders than women. While this is clearly a sexist prejudice, surprisingly, only a third of the respondents think that sexism played any role in Clinton’s failure to be elected.
Until we do have a woman President in the US we have to look elsewhere to determine if government by a female leader looks substantially different than under a man. For one thing, the argument that posits that women leaders are fundamentally different from men in that they avoid violence, is flawed. Looking to the more prominent historical examples we quickly see that women leaders are no less militaristic than men. Like most male politicians, when Thatcher campaigned in 1979 she promised to bring harmony, faith and hope, yet the Falkland Island Wars were fought under her watch. Initially seen as weak (because a woman?) when Thatcher faced the humiliating crisis of the Argentinian takeover of the British Falklands, Thatcher turned to men for advice and, “scrupulously deferred to her military commanders and supported their decisions to the hilt.”
Indira Gandhi, while a role model and inspiration for Indian women as a symbol of female potential, initiated the war with Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh in 1971. If anything, as Prime Minister Gandhi went on to strengthen India’s national defense, testing the first Indian nuclear bomb, and as one expert states it, “Gandhi smashed the myth that women could not be good war leaders or maintain the respect of generals”. And let’s be honest, does anyone seriously believe that as President, Hillary Clinton would bring peace to America?
On the social level, there seems to be a consensus that Thatcher did nothing to advance women’s rights. Indeed, many claim that she put feminism back by a generation. In 11 years she promoted only one woman to a cabinet position. The often repeated jibe that Margaret Thatcher smashed the glass ceiling and then pulled the ladder up after her needs no elaboration—though there are buckets of ink spilled on this subject. How about Theresa May? In 2010, she was appointed Minister for Women and Equality so when she became Prime Minister the hopes were very high indeed. Here too there seems to be agreement that while May has announced many initiatives in the areas of reproductive rights, domestic violence, and the gender pay gap, these initiatives have been ineffectual because of a lack of follow-up action. Her initiatives have been more for show than for substance.
Equally, while Pakistan and India were among the first to elect women leaders, they are also still notorious for institutionalized violence against women. Child marriage, wife burnings, genital mutilation are all condoned—or at least not actively prosecuted. Multiple incidents of gang rape in India made it clear that having a woman president does not change misogynistic or ultra-conservative attitudes in the short run and certainly not in the long run.
If there is to be any benefit to women from a female head of state, then we must hope for the long-term impact. Research shows that electing a female head of state often leads to an increase in women candidates down the ticket. We can suppose that at some point we would reach critical mass in the gender gap and having more female legislators would lead to more robust women’s rights? Because clearly one woman as leader is not enough to bring about significant changes. For one thing, there are the systemic limitations on the office that would box a woman president into the prescribed role. First and foremost she is an individual, working within a patriarchal system, with all the momentum, power and bureaucracy of long-standing institutions and practices—not to mention the sexist prejudices existing against women as rational and effective leaders.
Moving forward, though most pundits claim that it is highly unlikely that the Democrats would nominate another woman so soon after the bitter and traumatic defeat of Hillary Clinton, others see senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, or even Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as likely nominees for 2020. Sooner or later it will happen, we will have a woman President. But when that happens, will we find that all our waiting and hoping was rewarded? Will there be a sea change in women’s rights or equality in general? Looking at the evidence available today, we would have to seriously doubt it.