Sec. Hillary Clinton has been declared by the Associated Press to be the presumptive presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. Many have celebrated the possibility of a female president, and even a female nominee, as perhaps one of the most explicit testaments to the progress women in the United States have made. Not everyone has been so enthusiastic, however; even some who love the idea of a woman president just can't get behind Clinton's politics. Still, Clinton winning the nomination will be a historic moment, and there's one thing it should inspire us to keep in mind, regardless of our feelings toward Clinton: Though a woman is competing for president for the first time in history, women are still grossly underrepresented in politics.
Rutger's Center for American Women and Politics reported that women fill only one-fifth of the seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Only one in four statewide elected officials, including governors and lieutenant governors, are women. And fewer than one in five mayors are women. Having a woman poised to rise to the nation's top position of power is certainly significant. But it doesn't attest to equality of the sexes in politics. Clinton's experience is unique, not the norm.
The disproportionate representation of men in politics in the United States is dismal when placed in an international context. The Pew Research Center reported that, as of 2015, the United States ranked 75th among 137 countries with data available for women's representation in national legislatures.
Sexism is not just an issue of men devaluing women. The negative messages about women bred by societal gender norms can be sewn into women as well, and this can prevent us from pursuing leadership positions. A study from 2014 attests to the fact that both men and women have their doubts about women in politics. Though 65 percent of women and 49 percent of men said they think there should be more women in politics, both sexes expressed suspicion about women's emotional suitability for the field. The same number of men as women — 31 percent — agreed that men are more emotionally suited for politics.
Having women achieve positions of power could really change things for women generally as far as internalized sexism holds us back from pursuing positions of power. When we see people like ourselves (albeit with levels of privilege — say, white and wealthy — we don't all have access to) in positions we don't traditionally think possible for ourselves, it can put cracks in the foundation of internalized sexist notions concerning our capabilities. It can show us that women can be leaders.
But women still have a long way to go before obtaining equal representation in the American political arena, and a female president would usher in gender parity about as much as having a black president ended racism. Rather than seeing Clinton's historic position as the Democratic nominee as a victory for women, I say we take the anomalous nature of the occasion to remind us that we're nowhere near equally represented in positions of political power. I say we reflect on the reasons for this and take action against it.
I believe that starts with looking within ourselves and challenging ingrained messages that may prevent us from seeing our full breadth of potential. If we do so as a society, perhaps one day female presidential candidates and presidents won't be so anomalous.
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