It’s been 143 years since the first woman ran, unsuccessfully, for the United States’ highest elected office.
Will 2016 be the year we finally have a woman in the Oval Office?
Hillary Clinton is the latest in a long line of women attempting to break the nation’s most visible glass ceiling. She may have left "18 million cracks" in it in 2008, but Clinton has her work cut out for her in 2016.
Policies and mysterious funding aside, Clinton’s ambition highlights a broader problem with women’s representation in the United States. According to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, women hold a total of 19.4% of seats in the 114th Congress – 20% in the Senate, and 19.3% in the House of Representatives. It’s a far cry from gender parity, yet it’s a record for the branch of government that, in theory, is supposed to most closely resemble the demographics of the nation itself.
“The research on women in politics seems to suggest that it’s not about overt sexism when it comes to people evaluating candidates at the ballot box,” according to Laurel Harbridge, a professor in the political science department whose research focuses on Congressional elections.
“The gender of the candidate isn’t going to turn Democrats into Republicans and Republicans into Democrats,” Harbridge said. The dearth of women in elected positions is more likely caused by the relative lack of female candidates in the first place. “The networks that lead to people being recruited for office tend to favor men, so women don’t get recruited at the same rates,” she said.
Research by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox at American University has shown that women and men are both equally likely to consider running for office when they are in high school, but by the time the graduate from college, the gender gap is at its widest. The report points to socialization factors such as being discouraged from talking about political issues at home.
For Weinberg junior Karna Nangia, that wasn’t a problem either while growing up or entering college, where she found political groups and a major that encouraged her interest in politics and current events. Nangia is the first female student to serve as a president of Northwestern’s Political Union.
“I remember as a freshman, it was intimidating [to come to Political Union meetings],” she said. “But if you’re in a room full of 30 or 40 people who are knowledgeable about an issue, anyone would find it intimidating,” Nangia, who is one of two women on a board of eight members, says she hasn’t experienced overt discrimination, but has noticed that attendance at Political Union’s events is skewed towards men.
One of her goals as co-President is to increase attendance by women. “What I wonder, is, I’ve seen and I’ve read that girls speak up less in class – I wonder if that’s the same issue when it comes to student groups in politics,” she said.
In 2011, Emily Davidson (WCAS ‘13) noticed that pattern in Political Union meetings, and she felt strongly a culture in which women’s voices were not being heard. “The last straw for me, was when a female member made an argument that was well-reasoned, and a guy made a comment like, ‘Oh, we should revoke her right to vote,’” Davidson said, simply because her viewpoint was different.
While she said the joke was probably not meant to be malicious, “[the white man] who made the joke had never had his right to vote questioned.”
Comments like these, as well as a “bro-mentality” and “boy’s club” atmosphere led Davidson and her peers to form a Women’s Caucus as a space for women to engage in conversations about politics and current events, while also providing access to resources, skill building, and networking that might not be available through established groups like the Political Union or College Republicans and College Democrats.
Although the group only lasted from 2011 to 2013, Davidson said she still feels the need for such spaces is a crucial alternative for women. “If women call out the bullshit they see, they are called uptight,” Davidson said.
In 2008, the language surrounding Clinton’s campaign in the media was sometimes blatantly sexist, and more often subtly so. “I think we see men as people and women as women,” said Sydney Selix, the Vice President of Programming for Northwestern’s chapter of College Democrats.
“You would never comment on a man wearing a suit, but Hillary wearing a pantsuit is out of this world.” Having a woman run the Oval Office could change the way women view themselves as leaders, Selix said.
“Half our country is women, and seeing yourself represented would really encourage college-aged women to be politically active.”