Regardless of whether Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States (US) or not, women are slowly but steadily taking up political power.
The numbers of women leaders are still relatively low – only one-tenth of all leaders of the United Nation’s 193 member states are women and Clinton would be only the 19th female to currently govern her country. Research shows that over 60 of 142 countries have had women leaders at some point over the past 50 years, although most have held power for less than four years. Recent figures from UN Women also show that only 17% of government ministers are women, with most of their portfolios relating to social issues. And only two countries have a female majority in Parliament – Rwanda and Bolivia – although many countries have reached the one-third mark.
Clearly, there is still a long way to go. But here in the US, findings by the Pew Research Centre show that most women believe that whether Clinton achieves her second run for the presidency or not, a woman will be president at some point in their lifetime. According to one CNN poll, eight of 10 Americans think the country is ready for a woman president, but only one third think it’s a priority. Younger American women, it seems, take for granted the growing role of women in positions of power – both in government and business.
Among Clinton’s many detractors are those who would like to see a woman president but don’t necessarily believe she is the right woman for the job. Others are more appreciative of how much has changed since women first got the vote in 1920 (black women from the South faced voting hurdles until the 1960s), and are impatient to see Clinton in the White House as another important milestone on the path towards gender equality.
“When any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone,” Clinton said when accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Philadelphia in July. A woman in the White House, she said, would be “another step in our journey as a nation”. She also said that her election would give “other women and girls the hope that, whatever their goals, they can achieve them in this country”.
Some political observers believe that when Barack Obama felled the race barrier by becoming the first black president of the US in 2008, the sense of urgency around getting rid of the gender barrier by appointing a woman president dissipated. Clinton has also struggled to overcome deep unpopularity among many voters – both men and women. Her alliance with big business has left many working class voters feeling that she does not have their best interests at heart.
That said, the blatant sexism shown by her rival, Republican nominee Donald Trump, has shined a bright light on the status of women in the country.
When Trump accused Clinton of playing the “woman card”, her quick online reply was seen as a boost for her campaign.
“If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the ‘woman card’, then deal me in,” she said. In no time, a plastic “support Clinton woman card” became another must-have accessory for her supporters.
Trump’s glamorous daughter Ivanka, a powerful businesswoman in her own right, has tried to cast her father’s macho politics in a more woman-friendly light. When she introduced him at the Republican convention in Cleveland, also in July, she listed a host of Democratic-sounding, pro-women policies on childcare and family leave that she said her father would introduce, even though none of these policies are on the Republican agenda.
Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, similarly, has tried to show Clinton’s softer, more human side, describing her as her “wonderful, kind, thoughtful, hilarious mother” when she introduced her at the Democratic convention.
The friendship between Ivanka and Chelsea is much in the media spotlight. Both are powerful, accomplished young women who have made the most of their highly privileged backgrounds. Despite a bitterly-fought election campaign and the obvious rancor between their parents, their friendship supposedly endures. “I’m not running for public office, and neither is she, so of course we’re still friends,” Ivanka said in one interview.
Ivanka is vice president of her father’s real estate empire, the Trump Organization, and Chelsea is vice chair of the multi-million dollar Clinton Foundation. One of them will play a pivotal role in the new presidency. And, whatever the election outcome, both these young mothers are likely to be highly-influential individuals – whether in business or politics – in the years to come. The same could apply to Obama’s two young girls, Malia and Sasha, who will come of age in an era where race and gender won’t be the obstacles they once were.
Elsewhere in the world, progress on narrowing the gender gap in political leadership is being made. Women are at the helm in powerful countries like Germany and the United Kingdom. Although none of the frontrunners for the next United Nations Secretary General are women, it is still possible that a female could land the top diplomatic post. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is head of the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the UN Development Program, is a formidable leader who has her hat in the ring.
At the recent Social Good Summit in New York, Clark discussed the role of women in political power with another former woman president, Malawi’s Joyce Banda. Speaking to Barkha Dutt, an award-winning Indian television journalist, the two former state leaders shared their wisdom and advice for other women eying political office. They pointed out that many other countries have made more progress than the US in this regard, with Dutt reminding the audience that in Asian countries like India and Bangladesh women, have held office for years.
Clark, who campaigned in a climate where bumper stickers like “Ditch the Bitch” prevailed, said women in pursuit of political leadership had to brace themselves for many obstacles.
“Don’t accept people are going to roll out the red carpet for you. You have to roll out the red carpet yourself and kick the door down.”
Clark said women had to “turn a deaf ear to all the frankly misogynist things that are said about you. Everyone will have an opinion on how you look, how you dress, whether your teeth are crooked. You just have to look straight ahead, put your earplugs in and say I believe I can do this,” Clark said. On the UN Secretary General position she said she believed she had the right profile for the job. “So I’m standing my ground and saying I’m available.”
Banda, who walked out of an abusive marriage before becoming a leading politician and president of Malawi from 2012-14, said she did so at a time “when you didn’t walk out – especially in Africa”. Banda said she strongly believed that more African women had to become leaders. “Number one, because we have been leaders before. If you look into the history of the world before colonization we were already queens and leaders; we were leading our nations,” she told the audience. She also said it was crucial to support other women in their pursuit of top political jobs and not “dropping the ladder once we’ve arrived”, as former South African First Lady Zanele Mbeki once put it.
While Dutt wondered why so many successful women seem to feel the need to apologize for their ambition, Banda said she believed African women could benefit from a softer, more diplomatic approach or they would lose the battle before it had even begun. “Do I want to be shouting and antagonizing the people who need to open the way for me? That is the decision that we African women have to make.”
Banda, who herself lobbied for gay rights, recalled the time in 1995 when Clinton said that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights”. At the time, Banda said she thought Clinton was “out of her mind”.
“I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime a time when everyone would accept that women’s rights are human rights”, but Clinton was right ahead of her time, and that time has arrived.