As the world digests the news that Donald J Trump is US President Elect, we have been discussing the impact this result will have on women in politics and beyond. We asked Al Jazeera journalist and Our Edit contributor, Elisa Colton, to share her views, insight and analysis on this week’s monumental events.
A glass ceiling too far?
Before writing this I was quietly confident, hopeful even, believing the US was about to make history yet again by electing its first female president. Now, at 4:55am GMT (yes I’m awake, and it’s a cold, miserable night here in London watching American voters turn that map red) that dream looks to be in ruins. However, taking some solace in the facts rather than the emotions, I’m looking again at this. Let’s not forget firstly that Hillary Clinton’s very nomination was ground breaking. She was the first woman to run for Presidency of the
United States, and that very fact has highlighted the role of women in politics.
Jennifer Lawless is a Professor of Government at the American University, and author of Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era. Before the election I asked her about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. “It’s one of the most significant things we’ve seen in contemporary American politics” she said. “Hillary Clinton is breaking the glass ceiling. The symbolic and role model importance of that cannot be overstated.”
Lawless has researched the reasons why women are far less likely to run for office in the US. She’s found it’s not because they don’t think they have time, or that they don’t care enough, but it’s because they are less likely to believe they are qualified for a political position. That doubt so many of us have, the ‘imposter syndrome’ we can feel in our own jobs, is there in politics too. But whatever industry you work in, more often than not all it takes for us is to see a women in a position of power, doing her job and doing it well, for us to imagine ourselves there too and to really strive to achieve.
But what difference does it make to the lives of ordinary women (and men) if more women hold positions of power and influence in politics? How do they differ in their approach, and what are the issues they bring to the foreground of their political campaigning? The pressure group Emily’s List was set up to fund the campaigns of progressive female candidates to the US Congress. They have 3 million supporters and can proudly claim over 800 election victories.
They helped to get Pramila Jaypal, the first Indian-American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives to replace Jim McDermott in the state of Washington. Another high point in a pretty dire evening was the win by Democrat Tammy Duckworth, as Senator in Illinois. She’s an Asian-American ex-soldier, who lost both her legs in combat, and has campaigned tirelessly for veterans as well as working women. Having managed to navigate a career in the military, a notably ‘masculine’ environment, she’s now navigating the murkier world of politics in a deeply divided country.
The power of empathy
Research has shown that collaboration, compromise, and diplomacy mark the approach by women to a problem much more than men. It also matters that women with real life experience bring their strength of character, courageousness and tenacity to the world of politics, because when it comes to bringing in legislation that changes people’s lives, they can park the testosterone at the door and bring a real empathy to the power they wield as lawmakers.
One of the most amazing things about the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, was that he symbolically represented a historically marginalised sector of the population in the US. Judging from his support base Obama so clearly spoke to black Americans, ethnic minorities, the young, the hopeful, and also, significantly, women, in particular unmarried women. In her utterly brilliant and fascinating book All the Single Ladies, (nod to Queen Bey, feminist extraordinaire) Rebecca Traistor argues that in the 2012 election single women made up 25% of the electorate. That’s a huge part of the voting population, and it means that candidates at local and state level, as well as the presidency, need to address the key issues that affect their lives.
Equal pay is a major one. 3.3 million Americans are on minimum wage, and well over 50% of them are single women. It’s also so important that issues like access to contraception and abortion, things that directly affect women’s bodies, are debated and legislated on by women, the section of society which has direct experience and understanding.
A set back, but not game over…
It’s hard not to see this night as a backlash against progressive values, against the idea that women and men deserve equal treatment in society, and a sign that angry white men can elect as US President a demagogue who boasted about sexually assaulting women. And it really, really hurts that once more women are going to have to fight for rights we thought were self-evident. But fight we must, and fight they will in the US. Because carrying on against insurmountable odds is what women in politics have always done, and what they will continue to do. This is a setback, but it’s also a rallying cry to women to never, ever give up.
Elisa will be sharing her thoughts and insight on the week’s biggest news stories, each week on Our Edit.