The glass ceiling metaphor is going to be invoked a lot this week and rightly so. With her double-digit victory in California and her overwhelming lead in both the popular vote and the delegate tally, Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken a 240-year-old barrier to become the first woman to hold the title of presumptive nominee of a major U.S. political party.
No matter what one may think of the former first lady (and there is clearly no shortage of haters out there), this was a major barrier to be shattered. She acknowledged as much in her rousing speech Tuesday night in Brooklyn that invoked the women’s rights movement from the Seneca Falls Convention to present.
As much as this was anticipated — and with all due respect to Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, she’s been on a glide path to this moment since the Mid-Atlantic primaries in April because yes, the ballots cast by super delegates do count — it’s not clear that the historic nature of this achievement has sunk in with the electorate. At least not in the way that Barack Obama’s similar barrier-breaking performance did eight years ago.
But make no mistake, this is big. As of today, the whole parent-daughter chat about “you can grow up to be anything you want to be including president of the United States” sounds a bit more credible than it did the day before. And few candidates better embody the struggles women have faced in the last half-century – from balancing motherhood to career to be accepted in the various male-dominated professions — than the presumptive Democratic nominee.
There are plenty of issues on which we’ve parted company with Clinton over the years from the use of military force in Iraq to a persistent lack of transparency, but no one can make the case that she’s had an easy road to victory. If anything, the 68-year-old has consistently been treated more harshly by her opponents and the press than her peers — whether that’s because she’s a woman or a Clinton may depend on one’s point of view. And given the nature of this campaign, one suspects the most vile and misogynistic attacks are still to come.
How overdue is a female head of state? While Republicans and Democrats may brag that they’ve collectively elected more women to Congress than ever (about 20 percent of the House and Senate is female), other countries have done much better. As a Pew Research Center study released earlier this year points out, the U.S. ranks 33rd among 49 high-income countries in electing women to its national legislature. But wait, it’s really worse than that: Compared to 137 countries where data is available, the U.S. ranked 83rd, according to Pew.
Margaret Thatcher is often remembered as a trailblazer, but she was elected British Prime Minister nearly 40 years ago. Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir came well before her. Australia, Germany, Finland, South Korea, Peru, Thailand, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Greece, all have elected female heads of government in more recent years and there are many more.
Pollsters have asked Americans: What is holding women back from high political office? Among the most popular answers are that women are held to higher standards, that voters aren’t ready to elect them and that women lack political connections. Yet when voters are asked about these qualities they want in a leader — honesty, willingness to compromise and a desire to improve the U.S. quality of life — they believe women are more likely to possess them than men.
This dichotomy, the public’s faith and distrust in a gender, will no doubt get a full airing in the months to come. And the former secretary of state faces many obstacles ahead from convincing supporters of Sanders to rally to her side, to choosing a running mate and to responding to an attack-minded opponent in Donald Trump who has a gift for finding the soft spot in his opponents and then needling it mercilessly.
Women have made considerable progress in the U.S. since the days of suffrage but not without a struggle. Even with Clinton’s achievement, the ultimate glass ceiling barring women from the Oval Office, has not been shattered quite yet. That it took nearly full nine decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment to come this far perhaps demonstrates how the U.S. came to rank so miserably in electing women to political office.