The Significance of Electing Women

July 4, 2016

Hillary Clinton stands on the brink of becoming the country's first female president. In the lesson, students learn about women who have run for president in the past and consider the significance of having a woman as president of the United States.  

To The Teacher:

Hillary Clinton stands on the brink of becoming the country's first female president. If Clinton secures the Democratic Party nomination and wins the general election, her victory would mark a significant moment for a country that less than 100 years ago did not even allow women to vote.

This lesson is divided into two readings designed to have students think critically about the prospect of America electing its first woman president. The first reading provides a historical survey of women leaders in modern world politics. The second reading considers the significance of a potential Hillary Clinton presidency and weighs the debates surrounding the importance of electing a woman to the White House. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Reading 1:
Why does the U.S. lag in electing women leaders?

As the leading Democratic Party candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton stands on the brink of becoming the country's first female president. If she secures the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention in late July and goes on to win the general election, her victory would mark a significant moment for a country that less than 100 years ago did not even allow women to vote.

The United States lags behind numerous nations around the world, which long ago elected women as heads of state and government. Presently, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan all have either a female head of state or head of government. In a June 7, 2016, article, for the Los Angeles Times, reporter Ann Simmons details the extent to which the United States has lagged behind the rest of the world:

Hillary Clinton is set to make history as the first woman to be a presidential nominee for a major U.S. political party and potentially becoming the country’s first female commander in chief.

But the glass ceiling to a nation’s top office was long ago shattered in several countries around the world, including some with nascent democracies.

"The fact that these countries have democracies that are less established may make it easier for someone outside of the conventional political norms to get elected," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. The United States "has had two centuries to develop old-boy networks, the results of which are walls that are less easy to scale. New democracies have had less time to build such walls."

India has had the longest stretches with a woman in power, according to the Pew Research Center. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later President Pratibha Patil served a combined 21 of the last 51 years. In Europe, the Nordic countries stand out in terms of electing women to their nation’s top political office, according to Pew data, barring Sweden, where a woman has never headed the government.

There are currently 18 female world leaders, including 12 heads of government and 11 elected heads of state, according to the United Nations (some leaders are both, and figurehead monarchs are not included).

Hillary Clinton is already the most successful woman presidential candidate in U.S. history. However, as Julia Manchester writes in a June 10, 2016, article for, she is far from the first woman to seek the office. While women have only had the right to vote in the United States since 1920, they were running for president nearly 50 years before. Manchester wrote:

While Clinton and her predecessors faced similar gender barriers in the politics, the nation's earliest female politicians had an additional obstacle to overcome.

"You know they were running before women had the right to vote," said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. "Susan B. Anthony in the late 1800s would try to go to vote and she was jailed. So these women faced scorn and ridicule for running ... If you look at cartoons from that period, they were mocked."

Here are some of the women who have sought the presidency:

  • Victoria Claflin Woodhull, of the Equal Rights Party, was the first woman to run for president; she ran in 1872. Woodhull went on to become the first woman to own a Wall Street investment firm.
  • Belva Ann Lockwood ran for president on the Equal Right's party ticket in 1884 and 1888. She later became the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court.
  • In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, became the first woman to seek the nomination of a major political party. She lost the GOP nomination to Barry Goldwater, but did serve in the U.S. House and Senate.
  • In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. In 1972, she became the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination - and the first major party Black candidate for president.  Her campaign slogan was ‘unbought and unbossed."  Although Chisholm ran in most of the nation’s primaries, she lost the nomination to George McGovern.  

Why has it taken so long for a woman to come as close to the presidency as Clinton has? According to Zack Beauchamp of, both structural factors and voter perceptions have hurt the chances of female candidates. As Beauchamp writes in a June 9, 2016 article:

A handful of women have won presidential elections — Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff, is one.... So it's not that gendered stereotypes make it impossible for a woman to win a presidential election; it's just a lot harder.

A number of factors in the U.S. make it harder still.

For one thing, the U.S. has an unusually low number of women in its federal legislature. Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union finds that an average legislature is 22.7 percent female; the U.S. Congress is 19.4 percent female, ranking a dismal 97th in the world when it comes to women's representation. A smaller female legislative bench means fewer women are likely to run for president.

Another important factor, somewhat strangely, is the stability of the American political system. Historically, women are more likely to take over executive positions in countries that have recently experienced or are currently undergoing fundamental crises.

"19 percent of women came to power after a period of political transition, 45 percent came to power in countries with a recent history of instability, and 33 percent after a military takeover," University of Texas Austin's Pamela Paxton and University of Pittsburgh's Melanie Hughes write in their book Women, Politics, and Power....

The American political system is famously stable, with 227 years of democracy under the same Constitution. So here, would-be women presidents don't really benefit from crisis effects.

Finally, America's unique military might works against women candidates. The United States boasts the most fearsome military in human history. And voters think about electing a president in terms of electing a "commander in chief" with their "finger on the nuclear button."

These are, of course, highly gendered ideas: Leading troops into combat is stereotypically the most masculine of all masculine pursuits. People tend to envision a man in charge of the U.S. military, creating another implicit barrier to a woman being elected...


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, some women were running for president before they even had the right to vote. Why do you think they might have pursued this strategy?
  3. Zach Beauchamp asserts that voters think about electing a president in terms of electing a "commander in chief" with their "finger on the nuclear button," and that "people tend to envision a man" playing this role, creating a barrier to electing a woman president." Do you agree that these sexist stereotypes and biases are still commonly held today?
  4. Have you encountered people who have biases against voting for a woman for president? What arguments did they make? How did you respond?



Reading 2:
Does the President's Gender Matter?

The possibility of Hillary Clinton's victory has opened a debate about how much it matters to have a woman president. Some argue that the election of a woman to the highest office in the country would be a victory for women, regardless of the political policies she advances. Others contend that the actual positions a president takes are more important than her gender, and that even female politicians can support policies that hurt other women.

In a June 7, 2016 article for, Matthew Yglesias discusses how electing a woman president would have a lasting impact. Yglesias writes:

[T]here is clear and convincing evidence that [electing a woman president] does matter. Enormously. In the aggregate, women do govern differently than men, even when you control for partisan affiliation and the ideological composition of the election. But there aren't many women in the governing class. More than 80 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are men, as are just over 75 percent of state legislators and 88 percent of governors.

Electing Clinton would be a break from that pattern, but it would also drive further breaks. Studies show that when women achieve high office, female advancement in politics "trickles down," with a woman governor or senator inspiring a downstream boost in women state legislators. These victories would themselves carry important symbolic value, but beyond that they would generate concrete changes in the governance of the country — including more attention to issues related to child care, family life, women's health, and the needs of the neediest....

Tali Mendelberg, Christopher Karpowitz, and Nicholas Goedert show that "when women are many, they are more likely to voice women’s distinctive concerns about children, family, the poor and the needy." What's more, when women are more numerous and therefore more vocal on these topics, men become more vocal too, and "these effects are associated with more generosity to the poor."...

Women lead different lives than men, and would consequently govern differently if more of them were in office. And the evidence strongly suggests that electing women to high-profile jobs inspires more women to run for and win lower-profile jobs. The presidency is by far the highest-profile job in American politics, meaning a Clinton presidency would likely have a meaningful downstream impact on women's representation for years to come — with far-reaching ramifications for public policy at both the state and national level.

Contrary to this perspective, other commentators argue that simply electing a woman to the presidency will not necessarily improve conditions for the majority of women in America. As journalist Kate Aronoff writes in a June 10, 2016 article for Waging Nonviolence, the tenures of some recent female leaders left many women worse off than before these politicians took office:

Women have been all but locked out of the United States’ highest office for decades, and Clinton herself has faced a barrage of sexist attacks since long before her campaign began. That she is now a legitimate contender for the Oval Office is an unambiguous testament to the power of feminist movements throughout this country’s history, from those who came together in Seneca Falls to the women who’ve fought back against toxic birth control and forced sterilization this last half-century. Those who fought for these victories changed the political weather, and stripped away the idea that women are unfit for either high office or basic dignity.

Clinton’s nomination, though, can be a victory for the women’s movement without being a victory for women....

Clinton would not be the first woman to run a major global north country. Angela Merkel has been the chancellor of Germany since 2009. And Margaret Thatcher, of course, broke the glass ceiling at 10 Downing Street when she was elected prime minister [of the U.K] in 1979. Each have driven brutal austerity agendas that left women worse off — Merkel in Greece and Thatcher in her own backyard.

"For a woman to occupy that office is a tremendous moment in the country’s history," one NBC correspondent remarked when Thatcher took office. "Britain may have entered a new era today. Not just because the prime minister is a woman, but because of the strong conservative policies she intends to push."

The neoliberal orthodoxy Thatcher pioneered has had a devastating effect on women worldwide. In the global north, shrinking welfare states leave working mothers without access to either basic social services or common sense policies like paid family leave. The free market fundamentalism Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both evangelized lingers on, no less so than in Britain and this country’s starved social safety net. A study last summer committed by the United Kingdom’s Labor party found that of the more than $13 billion cut from families in the Conservatives’ 2015 budget $10 billion would come directly from women.

Cuts to services like the National Health Service and the wholesale privatization of healthcare in this country have annihilated reproductive health services and made care work — the vast majority of it done by women — both more painstaking and expensive....

The point here is simple: Women can back policies that are bad for women, even if the fact that they are in office at all is a win for women’s movements. Thatcher’s victory made life harder for millions of women. If her career has been any indication, Clinton won’t do any better by women simply by virtue of being one.

There is no doubt that a win by Hillary Clinton would be symbolically powerful, but the potential policy impact of having a woman president remains a matter of debate.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, wins by high-profile women politicians encourage more women to run for office, especially at the state and local levels. Why do you think this might be the case?
  3. Matthew Yglesias maintains that  "women lead different lives than men, and would consequently govern differently if more of them were in office." Do you think this is true?
  4. At least one study shows that as more women are elected to office, they "voice women’s distinctive concerns about children, family, the poor and the needy." Do you think a woman's perspective on these issues is necessarily different from that of a man? Why or why not?
  5. Some women leaders in the past have advocated for policies such as cutting social services for working mothers or families in poverty. Given this, do you believe the gender of a politician actually matters, or is their ideological orientation more significant? Explain your position.
  6. What do you think? How significant would a victory by Hillary Clinton be for women in the United States?