“Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” Clinton said when she became the presumptive nominee of her party this week. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
There are those who argue that gender doesn’t matter, that competence does — as if the two are mutually exclusive. If anyone knows how much competence counts, it’s the countless women who’ve struggled to make it to the top of their fields.
Women represent only 20% of the U.S. Congress. One hundred years ago the first woman was elected to Congress. It took all those years for a major U.S. political party to nominate a woman for president. As Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar told CNN, politics has been a “macho sport.” If you want to make it to the top in that arena, you can’t be all things to all people.
As Erin O’Brien, co-editor of Diversity in Contemporary American Politics and chair of political science at UMass Boston said of Hillary Clinton: “There is no denying that she is ‘badass.’ And that’s a good thing. It got her here. Wounded in some ways, disliked by many, but firmly at the fore. The first realistic female president had no other path.”
We are often unaware of our own cultural biases with regard to appropriate roles for women and men. Most girls learn early that sounding too sure of themselves will make them unpopular with their peers. Yet, those who demure are perceived at lacking leadership potential. So, women try to walk what I’ve described as the thin pink line. Eventually, however, we learn that sticking to that line, especially when leadership is required, is a good way to derail a career — to suppress the best we have to offer.
Males and females also use and perceive language differently, adding to the challenge. A stated observation by a man may be perceived as a complaint when expressed by a woman. We are, after all, creatures of habit and products of the contexts in which we develop.
We should celebrate when highly competent women pave the way, crack the glass ceiling, traverse the rugged terrain. With each bold step detrimental biases and limiting parameters for behavior are questioned — not only for women but for men as well.
So, does it matter that history was made this week? Yes. It is indicative of progress — of a recognition of our emergence from being unable to think beyond stereotypes.
Is being female enough to be a great president? No. But it’s exciting to think that maybe today we’re closer to it no longer being enough to stop us.