There’s no romance when the favourite wins. Everyone loves David; no one would have remembered if Goliath had won. This seems to be what has happened with the news that Hillary Rodham Clinton has finally secured the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The media is reporting the story as though she were the inevitable candidate, the presumptive nominee for so long (arguably eight years), finally claiming victory. It is worth pausing, though, to reflect on the significant and unlikely achievement that Hillary Clinton has made by becoming the first female nominee of a major American political party.
When Clinton’s mother Dorothy Rodham (née Howell) was born in 1919 women did not yet have the right to vote in the United States. Two years before Hillary Rodham was born a poll of the American electorate found that more than two thirds would not vote for a female candidate even if she was “qualified in every other respect”. Clinton was 25 before a female was elected Governor of a state without her husband having previously served as Governor. It was around this time in the mid-1970s when surveys showed for the first time a majority finally disagreeing with the statement that men were “better suited emotionally for politics than women”. She was 35 before a female was nominated on a major presidential ticket with the selection of Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s Vice Presidential candidate. Ferraro still faced immense sexism, as demonstrated when she was asked in an interview whether she believed the Soviet Union “might be tempted to take advantage of you simply because you’re a woman”. 1992, the year Clinton’s husband became President, was the first time that more than two women had served in the 100-seat United States Senate at the same time. When she entered the Senate herself in 2001, she was in the cohort that for the first time comprised more than 10% women. When President Obama nominated her to the position of Secretary of State fewer than thirty women had ever sat at the Cabinet table - and still only a quarter of Obama’s cabinet were women.
When considering the broader context of women's oppression within the American political system, we can see how truly revolutionary this moment is.
The Democratic race has been exciting, no doubt. In a contest in which Secretary Clinton was the odds-on favourite for so long, the insurgent candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been remarkable. He deserves congratulations for his victories in 23 states and for the 12 million votes he received, as well as his history making status as the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary. Sanders also solidly staked his claim to being the change agent in the campaign, forcing Clinton to be seen, at worst, as everything wrong with “old politics” and, at best, as a reliable workhorse. This was perhaps demonstrated most effectively on a Saturday Night Live skit in which Sanders and Clinton were sharing a drink at a bar. Sanders ordered “a new brand that people are flocking to — something refreshing, something that draws crowds” while Clinton mournfully ordered “whatever beer no one likes but gets the job done.”
In fact the entire Democratic process was overshadowed by the absolute farce which was the Republican presidential race. The only evidence required of this ridiculousness was that it produced Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. His racist diatribes, Twitter outbursts, shallow spats with journalists and fellow presidential nominees, and overall aura of unpredictability have proved a boon for journalists, keen to compete in the world of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. The rise of Trump has meant that many of the more thoughtful and exploratory long-form pieces have been about the impact of his rise on the Republican Party, the American electorate, and the global community. This saturation of the media landscape by Trump has similarly obscured the significance of Clinton’s victory.
Regardless of whether she wins in November, Clinton’s victory in the Democratic primaries will hopefully usher in greater opportunities for women in American politics. Clinton’s campaign staff currently has a 50-50 gender split, in stark contrast to the Trump campaign which is currently comprised of 72% men and in which the men are paid on average 35% more than the women. It seems likely that she would appoint the first ever female White House chief of staff. Matt Yglesias of Vox has highlighted research which shows that there is a “trickle down” effect of women in politics whereby another woman’s success encourages more women to run.
There are many legitimate concerns about her candidacy, including her ties to Wall Street and her use of a private e-mail server while Secretary of State. But the fact that these are the concerns about her, not her gender, is a testament to the gains that women have made in politics in the United States over Hillary Clinton’s lifetime. Much of this is due to her as a trailblazing First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. While we have come to expect so much of her, and the discussion has already moved on to whether she will be elected President, it is worth pausing briefly to reflect on this monumental event - a woman securing the nomination of a major political party.
Mitchell Robertson is the US Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Hillary for America (Flickr: Creative Commons)