Identity

What Hillary Clinton's Loss Means for the Future of Women in Politics

According to the director of the Women & Politics Institute in Washington D.C., the triumph of an unqualified bigot over the first U.S. female presidential candidate does not spell doom for aspiring female politicians.

by Rebecca Kamm
Nov 14 2016, 8:10pm

Photo by Jewel Samad for Getty

Women across the globe felt a parallel and crushing loss last week when the 240-year male stronghold on the US presidency remained unbroken. Despite Clinton's rival spouting the most misogynistic and racist comments of any presidential nominee in recent history, America continues to trail far behind the tens of countries who achieved the "first female leader" milestone years ago.

We asked Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute in Washington D.C. and a professor of government, what effect this could have on aspiring female politicians.

BROADLY: Let's start by looking at your research on what you call the "ambition gap", which found men at college were twice more likely than women to consider running for office some day. What's driving this gap?
Jennifer Lawless: The ambition gap among college students actually looks a lot like the ambition gap among professionals adults who are in the professions most likely to lead to political careers.

There are two substantial factors involved. The first has to do with qualifications and confidence. Women of all ages are far more likely than men to doubt they have those kinds of credentials or qualifications, or the right skills and characteristics.

The second factor has to do with encouragement. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office, or to get any kind of external encouragement to run for office. Yet when they get it, they respond just as favorably as men.

So despite the fact they doubt their qualification to run, once they are encouraged or shoulder-tapped they are just as likely to consider running?
Right, it closes that gap. It sends the signal that they are qualified to run. Because it's not that women are doubting themselves the same way they might doubt themselves in other professions. Women are far more likely than men to look around and think elected officials aren't qualified [enough] either. Women just hold everybody up to a higher bar.

Women think they have to be twice as good to get half as far, because they perceive widespread sexism in the political environment.

Men look around and also think most politicians out there are pretty bad, but that becomes the bar, and they say, 'Oh, well I'm at least as good as that.'

The other piece of the puzzle is that women also think they have to be twice as good to get half as far, because they perceive widespread sexism in the political environment. Even though when women run for office they win their elections at equal rates, and raise just as much money, that is not generally the perception of women who are well situated to run for office.

So you believe the bias against women doesn't match our perception of bias.
Yeah, that's exactly it. I would say the perception of bias against women in politics is driven by high-profile examples of explicit sexism. I don't want to suggest that some of these high profile examples are not completely egregious—they're just not the norm.

The perception is that these high profile unusual examples are what it's like for all women, everywhere. What we're trying to do is say, "No, it's actually not like that in the overwhelming majority of contests." We need to encourage more women to run for office, and quell the concern that they're going to be treated the way that Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin were.

The encouragement and the shoulder-tapping you mentioned—that's an incredibly simple but powerful semi-solution.
Yeah. It's certainly effective if you get that encouragement from a formal political actor, like an elected official or a political activist or a party leader. But getting that kind of suggestion from a teacher, professor, family member, colleague or friend matters a lot too.

It's one of those small things we can all try to do, to close this gender gap in political ambition. To be very explicit when we're encouraging young women to run for office; to say to them: "Look, we mean it. You should really consider doing this one day."

This was not your typical election cycle, and Hillary Clinton is not a typical female candidate.

In an 1987 profile of Patricia Schroeder, Lynn Martin told the Washington Post: "All of us remember our mothers nagging. And Pat's got some of that tone." Any aspiring female politician who does their research, only to find 2016's gendered insults match those from three decades ago, has got to feel disheartened. Does that worry you?
It does. It's complicated, because at the presidential level we've certainly seen misogyny and discrimination, in ways that make it look like we've been set back fifty years. The kinds of things Donald Trump has said this election cycle are, in a lot of ways, far worse than what Hillary Clinton heard when she ran in 2008, or even what Pat Schroeder heard when she was considering a run in the late eighties.

These kinds of comments concern me, but they're also quite unusual. And it's through this national lens—through presidential politics—that people make assumptions about what the political arena must be like. But when you look at congressional and state races, it's really not like this. Women win at equal rates, they raise just as much money, and their media coverage looks the same.

So this worries me not so much because a lot of young women will think, "Well, I'm never going to run for president"—most people are never going to run for president. It worries me because I think they're going to look around and assume that even if they were to run for office at a local level, this is what they would have to navigate, and that's just not true.

What else do you tell the young woman who says, "I was thinking about politics as a possible avenue, but after witnessing this election..."
There are a couple of things that are important: The first is that this was an election unlike anything we had ever seen. We had two candidates who had higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings. We had two candidates who were highly unpopular. We had the most qualified female candidate we've ever seen, but also the one with the most baggage we had ever seen.

Read more: Conversations with Our Moms After Hillary Clinton's Loss

This was not your typical election cycle, and Hillary Clinton is not a typical female candidate. She's unique in so many ways, that I think the best piece of advice that we can give to young women is to say: "Look, this does not mean that women can't win elections. This does not mean that you should not fight the fight by running for office. When we look at all of these other levels of office, women are just as successful, and it's likely that one day we'll elect a female president as well."

I don't think that Hillary Clinton lost this election because voters were unwilling to vote for a woman. In fact, she received more votes. I do think that being explicitly sexist did not disqualify Donald Trump from becoming president, and that is incredibly alarming and depressing.

I think one thing that truly depresses me is that if you flip the scenario, and Trump is "Dawn Trump," and she's this emotionally unregulated, neon-haired, male strip-show judge with five children to three different men—that is beyond unimaginable. Even more so than Donald Trump becoming president was, or still is.
That's true, except I think the same applies to any other male candidate as well. I don't think this was a situation where we just completely lowered the bar, and it was acceptable simply because he was a man. I think this was an unusual set of circumstances, and such a bizarre series of events.

Because when you look at all of the other men against whom he was running in the primary, with the exception of Ben Carson, they all had completely legitimate political credentials, and they were all very serious contenders that we're typically accustomed to seeing, and he defeated all of them as well.

Do we forgive men for more in politics?
There's no evidence of that. Again, the problem with the presidency is that we've only had one woman garner the nomination, and before that we'd only had one woman almost win the nomination, and that one woman was Hillary Clinton, and she's incredibly unique.

It's difficult to know whether the experiences she had were to do with sexism, or Clinton-ism. When you look at congressional races, there are hundreds of them every two years, so we can draw more general conclusions [from that], and we can analyze the data more systematically.

There, we really don't find anything in the way of gender differences. Male and female candidates are assessed by voters quite similarly. I feel like that's the kind of information we need to disseminate, especially given that people are so horrified that Trump's sexism didn't disqualify him. [Instead], he actually became the most powerful person in the world. That's the dynamic and the sexism we really need to start focusing on. Because clearly people are accepting that behavior in a way that we thought we were beyond.

When more and more women and women of color are running for lower levels of office, that puts them in the pipeline to then run for higher positions.

To make sense of this election in a gendered context I guess you really need the hindsight of about five-hundred years.
Or at least one more female presidential candidate. Even just one more election cycle.

You literally have a sample size of one.
Yeah, and somebody who's so incredibly unusual.

I'm in New Zealand right now, where we've already had two female prime ministers. The US is so far down that list. Why?
I think the biggest problem is that women are underrepresented in the paths to the presidency. US senators and governors are the most likely people to ultimately run for president, and at no point in time have we ever had more than nine female governors. Right now we only have six.

So between 80-90 percent of the pipeline for the presidency is male-dominated, which means that it's just unlikely that you're going to have a female candidate emerge.

Now, in every presidential election since 2004, we've had a woman run, but in very crowded primaries. In 2004, Carol Moseley Braun ran. She was the only woman, but there were probably ten men in the race. In 2008 Hillary Clinton ran, but again it was against seven or eight men. In 2012 Michelle Bachmann ran on the Republican side. Here, too, you had a dozen men. This time around, Carly Fiorina on the Republican side faced off against 16 male challengers.

The math is just such that when you look at the kinds of people that run for the presidency, men are the ones that have those positions and those credentials. It will get better over time, but the increases in women's representation have been pretty glacial.

Yet, for the first time, more women of color than ever before were elected to the US Senate. What made that possible?
Again, it took a candidate. The other thing to keep in mind too is that Tammy Duckworth had one election to the house of representatives. Kamala Harris had been Attorney General. We have a situation where, when more and more women and women of color are running for lower levels of office, that puts them in the pipeline to then run for higher positions. I think it's great, and those historic gains should not be overlooked this election cycle.

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The other thing is that 100 percent of those gains were on the Democratic side. The one female incumbent senator who was defeated was a Republican. When we have the 21 women in the senate in January, 16 of them are Democrats and only five will be Republicans. That lopsided ratio is also a problem, because that means that women's electoral fortunes generally are linked to the successes of the Democratic party.

You are obviously committed, personally and professionally, to the advancement of women in politics. What was this outcome like for you—coming so close to witnessing the ultimate manifestation of what you stand for, then seeing it fall through?
I ran for Congress in 2006, so I think I take these losses a little bit more personally, because I know what it's like to actually make that concession phone call. Obviously it wasn't on the scale that Hillary Clinton ran, but I know what it's like to throw your life and your heart into something for 16 or 17 months, and then feel crushed. On that level, I was disappointed.

But I was sickened by the fact Donald Trump's statements were overlooked. What bothers me the most is that people said they didn't agree with him, then they cast ballots for him. That is what bothered me the most. For that reason, it was just sort of a punch to the gut.

In a lot of ways, Trump's victory was on the back of progress that women have made over time. Not only women—blacks, Latinos, people with disabilities, undocumented workers, legal immigrants, Muslims, the list goes on and on. That's what I personally found most upsetting.