Hillary Clinton as president will not necessarily be a feminist coup

Hillary Clinton is a flawed presidential candidate. But she’s still probably the best on offer. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Donald Trump’s colourful tilt at becoming the Republican candidate for US president has somewhat overshadowed the tensions emerging in the Democratic race. A female president is obviously long overdue, so there is pressure to select Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate.

Clinton is the only female candidate and has the experience and skills needed for the job. But many women – including some feminists – do not support her.

Some older feminists have criticised younger women for betraying the feminist cause. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright demanded that all women vote for Clinton. She claimed:

There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.

This provoked angry reactions from many of the young women supporting Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. They see this as an outdated view that fails to understand current political debates.

They could validly contest the claim that Clinton’s success would shatter the glass ceiling. This is an outdated and inadequate metaphor. In the more than 50 years since the start of the second wave women’s movement, we have failed to “normalise” women in powerful positions, so the presumption that Clinton’s ascendancy means others would follow is a specious one.

The evidence shows that a first female in a leadership role doesn’t necessarily attract successors. No women succeeded Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher or, more recently, Joan Kirner or Carmen Lawrence.

Data collected by the Pew Research Centre show that 63 of 142 nations studied by the World Economic Forum have had a female head of government or state at some point in the 50 years up to 2014. But, in nearly two-thirds of those nations, a woman was in power for less than four of the 50 years – including 11 countries (17%) where a woman led for less than a year. This suggests that a single crack in the ceiling is usually quickly repaired.

The other justification is that having women in power will lead to feminist changes in policies and culture. This common trickle-up theory doesn’t seem to work. Few women in very senior positions have managed to make real changes to the dominant system of masculinised merit and control.

So, four decades after the UN International Women’s Year (1975), women are still the second sex, the “Other”. This means women usually are allowed power only if they fit into masculine worlds. So it is not evident that a female president would necessarily advance serious gender equity.

There are other questions for American voters to consider – for example what Clinton can offer to deal with pressing political issues such as climate change, and the inequities caused by failing markets, wars and terrorism. While feminist perspectives on these issues would be valuable, there is some perception that Clinton is not the person to offer them.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, women voters:

… were looking at Hillary as a candidate rather than a historical imperative. And she is coming up drastically short on trustworthiness.

Clinton’s problem is she has been around for a long time, both as Bill’s wife and recently as secretary of state. With Sanders, on the other hand, the attention is on his potential as a change-maker rather than on his record. He claims to have solutions to financial regulation and he promotes wide social democratic values, including most of the feminist reforms that Clinton espouses.

By labelling Clinton a centrist and naming her past sins and connections, Sanders is able to give her serious competition before the Democratic National Convention.

If, as expected, Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she will also be the best candidate for president, given the likely Republican choices. Neither Trump nor Ted Cruz has credibility in most areas of concern to thoughtful voters, including feminists.

Trump’s latest faux pas of agreeing, albeit briefly, to criminalise women who have an abortion has created widespread condemnation. This single issue may revive Clinton’s support from feminists but still leaves concerns about wider residual misogyny.

The risk is that Clinton may still be too harshly judged and not given the credit she deserves, with many potential voters deciding to stay away and thereby jeopardising her chances of winning the presidency.

The history of powerful women is fraught with examples of unfair judgement of who they are and what they do. Women in power are often not judged in the same ways as men are; they face additional demands and expectations simply because they are women.

Women in power are also expected to adhere to higher standards than men – and often it is other women who most vocally make those demands. For example, women may be judged harshly if they show anger, raise their voice, or show vulnerability. Men get away with all of these.

The risk is that Clinton’s record and history, including her tolerance of her husband’s infidelities, may be used against her, while Trump’s chequered past is better tolerated. Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson defended Clinton on this point:

It’s fair to expect more transparency. But it’s a double standard to insist on her purity.

So women voters should turn out for an imperfect Hillary if she wins the Democrat nomination. Young women who didn’t support her before should take some credit for the fact that competition from Sanders caused her to adopt more progressive policies.

While Clinton in power will no doubt have to deal with financial and militaristic issues and make compromises, she is still most likely to be the best candidate on offer.