Clinton Makes History

But politics is still a boys' club

Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:43am

 

BY JEREMY SILK SMITH

Hillary Clinton is the apparent presidential nominee for the Democratic Party — and the first woman to rise so high politically.

The Associated Press has already reported that she has enough delegates to secure victory. And she picked up hundreds more across the country — from New Jersey to California — in Tuesday’s primaries.

“Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone: the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee,” Clinton said to the roars of supporters in New York late Tuesday, after taking the New Jersey primary but before final results from California.

But American politics is still, by and large, a boys’ club.  That’s despite some progress, especially in recent decades.

Take Congress. The percentage of women is at an all-time high — roughly 20 percent. But slightly more than half of the nation’s population is female.

The first woman House member was elected in 1916. And the Senate did not see an elected female senator until 1932. For decades, the needle didn’t move very much. In 1971, for example, women accounted for only 3 percent of the members of Congress.

Three states — Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont — have never elected a woman to Congress.

By clinching her party’s nomination, Clinton may be challenging long-held beliefs about women and electability. 

“Women are less likely to be recruited as candidates because it is perceived that they don’t win as much as men,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “But evidence over the last 25 years has shown that women are just as likely to win as men.”

Lawless said that if more women are recruited to run, their numbers in elective office will increase. She recently coauthored “Women on the Run” which examines the political landscape that women in Congress face.

But who does the recruiting is important.

“The gatekeepers who are out there are more likely to pick and recruit and groom people who look like them,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “If you pick people who look like you, you may find you end up with white men.”

Walsh pointed to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union which ranked the United States 97th when comparing the number of women in the House to their legislative counterparts in other countries.

“There is still a ways to go for political parity and women’s representation at every level,” Walsh said.

Almost eight years ago to the day, after conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama, Clinton told her supporters her candidacy was a crack in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”

“This time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said. “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

This time around, Clinton has climbed at least one rung higher than she did in 2008.

Lawless said that’s important. But there’s still work to be done.

“No one presidential candidacy can take care of the problem that women are underrepresented in politics,” she said. 

And if Clinton wins in November?

“There will be a generation of girls who won’t think it is impossible for a woman to become president,” Lawless said.

Contact Smith at jeremysmith@cqrollcall.com  and follow him on Twitter @JeremySilkSmith.