The Gender Revolution that Wasn't: Clinton and the History of Female Candidates

Women in politics have come a long way—when Hillary Clinton started her political career, women weren't allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor—but gender equality in the political arena remains elusive.

Nov 14 2016, 8:33pm

Photo by Jewel Samad via Getty

This campaign was supposed to be historic: electing the first female president. Finally, women's moment to rule. The data seemed to support the inevitability of this momentous occurrence; in the final days of the campaign, Washington had decided that Hillary Clinton's firewall was white, college-educated voters: Donald Trump was losing them to Clinton by a whopping 27 percentage points. Given that women voters have swung every election since Ronald Reagan and tend to vote, on average, ten percentage points more than men, the election must have been in the bag for Clinton, right?

Wrong. The day after the election, facing the prospect of President-elect Trump, many Clinton supporters seemed stunned. Instead of electing the first candidate to run on a pro-woman platform, a majority of white, female voters had cast their vote for a man accused of sexual assault more than a dozen times, whose record with women read like the transcript from a high school boy's locker room.

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Despite the disparaging pre-election belief that women would be "voting with their vaginas," the female electorate has never been a singular, unified force, something the exit polls made obvious: While 94 percent of black women and 68 percent of Latina voters supported Clinton, only 43 percent of white, female voters had cast their ballots for the first woman candidate.

From Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential candidacy in 1984 to Sarah Palin's nearly 25 years later—both women placed on the ticket in part because of their gender but who in terms of policy ignored that fact—female voters have proven repeatedly that they won't vote for women just because they're women. Both Ferraro's running mate in 1984, Walter Mondale, and Palin's, John McCain in 2008, lost the women's vote, and their races, overwhelmingly. And while 95 percent of African Americans voted for the first black president, there have been dozens of women who've run for office in the last 150 years and none of them have enjoyed any such devotion from women voters. Only Clinton rose to even win a major party nomination.

It was supposed to be different with Clinton: In contrast to politicians like Palin and Ferraro, she made gender the centerpiece of her campaign. And when she spoke about her years of political service, she was also essentially describing the gains women have made in politics over the past fifty years. When she first entered politics, the most powerful women in Washington were society hostesses and wives. There were only a handful of women in Congress and the odd token in the cabinet, and those who were elected found themselves shut out of certain caucuses and rooms and relegated to work on "women's issues." Even the endless pantsuit references that surround Clinton speak to this legacy: She was the first woman to wear one in an official US First Lady portrait, a surprisingly radical act, considering that women were prohibited from wearing pants on the Senate Floor until 1993.

During Clinton's long career, she saw women for the first time sustain a plural presence in the Senate, and she then joined those ranks herself. She later pushed her husband to nominate the first female Secretary of State, an office she would also go on to hold. The country has seen real, demonstrable change; exactly 100 years after the first woman was elected to Congress, women now number more than 100 members of that august body. Under Obama, women have also reached critical mass in all three branches of the government: Twenty percent of the Senate, 30 percent of the administration in terms of political appointees and upper level civil service managers, and 36 percent of the federal bench.

But the path for women in politics remains fraught. The first woman to run for president was Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1870. Never mind that she was too young to actually be president or that women wouldn't actually get the vote for another 50 years, Woodhull espoused a radical platform of open marriage, free love, and equality not just of the sexes but the races. Her ideas were not exactly welcomed: She spent Election Day in jail. One hundred and forty-six years later, Trump delivered his victory speech after beating Clinton to chants of "Lock her up!"

Clinton lost, and the gender revolution she had promised as part of her campaign failed to materialize. But that doesn't mean that with a different candidate in a different year it might someday be realized; as Clinton gracefully noted in her concession speech on Wednesday. "I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now," she said, standing under the glass ceiling of the New York Javits Convention Center. "And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams."