international analysis and commentary

Sexism in American politics, the “other” skeleton in the closet


During the 2008 US presidential campaign, my European colleagues often asked me, “is a woman or a black man more likely to win the Democratic nomination?” I had the feeling it was a question they already had an answer to: Considering the US’s painful history of racism, there was no way on earth an African-American could make it to the White House, so Hillary (with the help of her last name) had it in the bag. Being a woman myself, and having grown up in a region of the US where racism is alive and well, I should have been torn in my thoughts. However, I was sure that, like Clinton and Obama, the strength of sexism and racism were in a tight race in America, with sexism holding a slight lead.

Provoking this intuition was a historical point: the 15th Amendment, allowing black men to vote, was ratified in 1870; whereas the 19th Amendment, which granted universal suffrage, was ratified in 1920 – a half a century later and after more than 140 years of suffrage during which women obtained limited voting rights in many states. I hated to be pessimistic, but my fear was that we still had a long way to go in the US before seeing a female president.

The win of both the primary and the presidency by an African American in 2008 was a monumental leap in American social progress – that is undeniable. However, the experience of the primary suggested that a man, even one of an ethnic minority, was more likely to get into the White House than a woman. Indeed, a CBS News poll published in March 2008 predicted this. According to the poll, 62% of voters believed America was ready for a black president (50% of blacks agreed), while 59% believed America was ready for a female president. The same poll also revealed an irony in American public opinion: more respondents said that female candidates face more obstacles than black candidates (39% vs. 33%) and that Hillary had been judged more for her gender (42%), than Obama had been for his race (27%). Yet, they said that racism is a bigger problem for the nation overall. This was telling. While fewer believed America was ready for a female president, they also didn’t see sexism as such a serious problem.

While the race was tight, these contradictions came out in the final results. While blacks (and ethnic minorities in general) voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama, women did not do the same for Hillary. She barely managed to get half of the female vote overall and Obama, who was uniquely good at campaigning and even benefitted from a bit of Clinton establishment fatigue, beat her with women in both the Iowa Caucus and in the South Carolina primaries. The irony in this is that women represent a larger portion of the population than ethnic minorities (50% vs. 36%) – thus having, at least in abstract, more electoral prowess. Yet they failed to put heavy majority support behind Hillary proving that they didn’t yet view themselves as a cohesive constituency ready to vote at once for a female leader.

However, when Obama won the presidency, there was immediate pressure on one side for him to make a difference for the black population who voted for him, and fear of this very possibility on the other. Some even argue that race relations have actually worsened under the Obama administration due to the very presence of a black man in the White House – a scenario that casts a shadow on the social progress symbolized by his election. Clearly this type of scenario would not have happened to Hillary, even if she could have pulled it off, simply because sexism is not perceived in American society as a serious problem.

In the 2016 race, Americans will have a second chance to face this “other” skeleton in the closet as Hillary begins a new race for the White House. And I now find my European colleagues asking me a new question, “After Obama’s double win (2008 and again in 2012), do you think America is finally ready for a woman?” I often can’t help but remind them that Jean-Marie Le Pen infamously declared, “There are no queens in the National Front.” Queens meaning gay men. He likely never once thought about including a derogatory term for lesbians in that statement proving the tendency to naturally consider men, even minority men, over women, when discussing the protagonists of power. Even a generation after the feminist movement, this tendency is still a problem in America as well.

Of course, the possibility of a woman being elected president in the United States should be in no way downplayed as it’s a country where change often comes fast, really fast, even if it seems slow and arduous for those on the front lines. The sudden progress made on the issue of gay marriage just in the last few years is an example of this. However, the lack of recognition of sexism as a serious problem, as mentioned above, could be a factor in slowing change on the gender front – particularly in the push for political inclusion. This could prove to be an underlying problem for Hillary. Let’s take another look at history.

The United States Cabinet has had 31 female secretaries and 20 black secretaries. While there are more women in this case, they took office over a longer period. Women began serving after the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, with the first woman appointed 13 years later (1933) and the second 20 years after that (1953). Blacks, on the other hand, were first appointed after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This translates into 31 female secretaries over 95 years and 20 black secretaries over 51 years (a handful of which were also women).

In Congress, women seem to have a more pronounced edge when compared to blacks. Forty-four women have served in the Senate compared to only nine African Americans – one of which was a woman. As for the House, almost 300 women have served, compared to 131 African Americans – including dozens of women. However, it should be noted again here that women make up a much larger portion of the population than blacks (50% vs. 13%). Plus, an early practice known as “widow’s succession”, in which wives succeeded their deceased husbands in office, may have contributed to opening America up to the idea of seeing women at this level of the political hierarchy. Today, 20% of the US Senate and 19% of the US House are female. These numbers are comparable to ethnic minorities as group (not just blacks) who, according to PEW, hold about 20% of congressional seats as well.

While the numbers on women may look good on paper, they fall short of the 30% target globally considered a benchmark in female political participation. According to the UN, 41 single or lower houses worldwide were composed of more than 30% women as of January 2015. America not only is not one of them, it is also slightly below the world average for female parliamentarians, which according to the UN was 22% in January.

Looking at these numbers, the US is still a mediocre player in the women’s political participation game and Hillary may have some additional cards stacked against her when comparing her case to Obama’s. The current President had two important factors on his side. First, during the 2008 campaign, Americans were desperate for a radical change after the disastrous Bush wars, and they were ready for a Democrat. This need for a major pivot was so strong, that it even stretched into a desire to elect a drastically different persona than had ever been seen before – meaning even an African-American over another Clinton. Though Obama ran an exceptional campaign, he also fit what America needed at the time. Clinton continues to not have this added advantage. The second, more controversial, point is that while the need for change was extremely intense, America at that point in history was simply not ready, as mentioned above, for a female president – like it was not ready for women to vote before 1920. Even though Obama was black, he was still a man – meaning in some respects unique, but in others a traditional player in the American political game.

Only eight years will have gone by when Americans return to the polls in 2016 – a small amount of time if compared to the 50 years that stood between the 15th and 19th Amendments. Plus, we’re talking about eight years with a Democrat in charge. America may have had its fill. This could all translate into Hillary being out of luck, not only because of a wrong moment in history, or because she is a woman, or even because of her party, but also because America needs to recognize sexism as a serious problem – starting with women themselves, like it did with racism, before it can reach its next major social milestone.

Of course, there is always a chance. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that today two in three Americans think the country is ready for a female president. That’s an improvement since the 2008 CBS poll, even if the skeleton of sexism is still very much in the closet.