Jewfem Blog

The Hillary Factor: New Trends for Women in American Politics

Whenever I see “Clinton” in a newspaper headline, I have to read down a bit to see if the story is about Bill or Hillary. Now that’s novel. The fact that the news is actually more likely to be about her than about him is even more unusual. In a county that has never had a woman president, vice president, or chief of staff, the fact that Hillary Clinton is the first woman running for president, whether or not she even wins, is already history in the making.>

Although only one woman in America has ever gotten close to being elected president – Geraldine Ferraro running alongside Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential elections – Hillary Clinton is doing more than breaking records and ceilings by vying for the top spot in American politics. Clinton is also changing how men and women are perceived in leadership. Interestingly, many women have taken over their husbands’ political seats – 47 women in American history, to be precise – though only one woman actually won that seat on her own in a general election. That was Leonor K. Sullivan, a Democrat from Missouri, whose husband died in office in 1951. She served in the House of Representatives from the general election in 1952 until 1975, when she retired and was succeeded by Dick Gephardt. . So Hillary is not only the first woman to be in a presidential primary, but she is also shifting the role and perception of the “political wife”. She was indeed the first “first lady” to be elected to Congress, and has thus drawn attention to the political potential of presidents’ wives. She is not simply taking her husband’s job, but she is trying to earn that job on her own, perhaps the way Leonor K. Sullivan did in 1952.

This is particularly striking considering how Hillary began her supportive role back in 1992. At the time, her husband, the newly elected President Bill Clinton, thought he was doing both the country and his wife a great service by appointing Hillary the task of drafting health care reform. The country was – and still is – in desperate need of change in this area, as the cost of insurance continues to skyrocket and remain out of reach for some 30% of Americans. In order to defend this critical and powerful appointment, Bill said of his wife, “She is one of the smartest people I know, and exceptionally qualified for this job.” In other words, Bill, too, was trying to promote Hillary not as a “first lady” but as a competent, independent woman in her own right. Now that was really radical.

It is striking that both Hillary and Bill took an enormous amount of heat for her health care role, and she eventually dropped the job and the reform plan failed. Some pundits argued at the time that she should not be given such an important job without having been elected. On the other hand, wives of presidents have always been assumed to be key consultants – quite intimate ones at that – so the fact that this position was actually formalized and subject to public scrutiny should have been an added bonus rather than a deterrent. Clearly, however, Hillary was breaking down stereotypes even then that not everyone in America was prepared for.

The fact that Americans are not fully prepared to see women as independent, competent political agents is illustrated by the women’s severe under-representation in American politics. According to statistics of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, US Congress ranks 67 out of 133 countries in numbers of women parliamentarians. ( In Congress, 71 out of 435 members of the House of Representatives are women and 16 out of 100 Senators are women – that’s a mere 16% in both houses. In State governments, the statistics are equally grim. According to the Center for American Women and Politics ( there are currently nine governors (6D, 3R) and 11 lieutenant governors, (8D, 3R) who are women. In addition, of the fifty states, four have female Attorney Generals, 12 states have a woman as Secretary of State, eleven states have a woman as Treasurer or Chief Financial Officer, and four have a woman as State Controller. That is quite a bleak picture for fifty percent of the American populace. Actually, all told, since 1789, only 2% of all members of Congress have been women.

Moreover, as much as Americans like to think of themselves as world leaders, when it comes to women in politics, we are way behind. Today, while Hillary is the first female presidential candidate ever in American history, there are eight women heads of government, in Chile, New Zealand, Mozambique, Liberia, The Philippines, Germany, India, and Jamaica. In the past century, there have been 47 women heads of government – but not one in the United States. So it seems the leader of the free world is perhaps not so removed from the caveman after all.

The question of why there are so few women in leadership positions is a point of contention. While brain theories about, with often-dubious claims about gender differences in competence, the sociological evidence is much stronger. According to one 2001 study on women in American politics by researchers Courtney Feeley, Richard Logan Fox and Jennifer Lawless, women have just as much political ambition as men, but are underrepresented in politics because of gendered social expectations. The researchers found that women considered many more factors when thinking about running for office, such as whether it would be good for their families, for their children, and for their relationships whereas men of all types felt more freedom and independence to launch a candidacy. In other words, socialization – that is, the complex web of ideas floating around in society that tell us what it means to be a ‘man’ or to be a ‘woman’ – probably hold women back in American politics more than anything else.

Still, perhaps the situation is changing. Between 1945 and 1995, the percentage of women members of parliament worldwide has increased four-fold. Of course, the half-empty part of that glass is that the record average level was reached was way back in 1988 with 14.8% of women MPs. Thus women in politics are better off than they were 60 years ago, but worse off than twenty years ago – that is, women’s representation worldwide is actually regressing.

So maybe Hillary is a light of hope for us after all. She has already shattered stereotypes and broken glass ceilings. And from here, the sky is the limit.

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