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Breaking the Gender Barrier

June 25, 2016

Before 2008, no major American party had ever nominated a presidential candidate who was not white and male. By the end of January 2008, it was clear that Democrats were going to end that streak by nominating either second-term Senator Hillary Clinton or first-term Senator Barack Obama.

Clinton had started the campaign as the prohibitive favorite among establishment Democrats and grass-roots Democrats alike; Obama was the long-shot newcomer. But Obama’s surprising success in early fundraising, followed by his surprising success in early primary contests, gradually shifted establishment Democratic support from Clinton to Obama.

Still, Obama and Clinton battled nearly to a tie among pledged delegates. Clinton’s campaign did not fade – she actually won two of the three June primaries. In the end, Obama won just 62 more pledged delegates than Clinton, out of 3,564 total pledged delegates. But Obama had a clear edge among superdelegates, who largely represented the Democratic establishment, and 36 hours after the final primaries Clinton announced that she would concede.

It’s hard to remember how differently Americans regarded Hillary Clinton in 2008 than now. Among other things, 2008 was before Benghazi, before the private State Department e-mail server, before the Goldman Sachs speeches, and before the Republican Party became a wall of obstruction.

Despite all of that, Clinton is about to become the first female presidential nominee of a major American party. And if current polling holds up – that is, unless Donald Trump figures out how to stop self-destructing – Clinton will become the first female American president.

Thus Election Day 2016 will be a great and historic day for the country, as was Election Day 2008, when we elected our first African-American president. But we should moderate our self-congratulations.

By my count, there are 198 countries in the world. Of those, 81 have been led by appointed or elected female heads of state, heads of government, or both. (“Appointed or elected” excludes hereditary monarchs.) Women today are heads of governments or states in 18 countries – counting Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who holds the office but has been suspended by the Brazilian Senate.

Nor are Americans especially early to the game. The first female head of state was Khertek Anchimaa-Toka, who headed the Soviet puppet state of Tannu Tuva from 1940 until 1944, when the fiction of national sovereignty was eliminated. The first female head of government was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was first elected prime minister of Ceylon, later Sri Lanka, in 1960. Bandaranaike served four separate times as prime minister, the last ending in 2000, when she was 84 years old.

European countries have not surprisingly best represented women among their appointed or elected heads of state and government, with 29 out of the 81 countries to have done so – although that includes East Germany and Yugoslavia, which is sort of double-counting because neither of those countries still exists, and successor countries of both have been led by women. More surprising is the representation of women at the top in the countries of South and Southeast Asia, regions not thought of in the U.S. as pioneers of gender equality. Yet Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia, and Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand in Southeast Asia have been led by women.

Fifteen African countries, all sub-Saharan (counting Mali, which is partly Saharan and partly sub), have been run by women. Seventeen Latin American and Caribbean countries have been run by women. Even Canada has been run by a woman – Kim Campbell, who served as prime minister for just over four months in 1993, until her Progressive Conservative Party lost to the Liberal Party of Jean Chretien.

Woman are underrepresented generally in top positions in American government, but more so in top executive positions. Three of eight Supreme Court justices are women; 104 of 435 members of the House of Representatives are women; 20 of 100 Senators are women. Only six of 50 governors are women. In the private sector, only 22 heads of Fortune 500 companies are women; it has famously been observed that more large corporations are run by men named John than are run by women. There is something specific about executive authority that exacerbates our more general lack of confidence in women holding high positions.

So it is a big deal that we are probably going to elect our first female president. But it reflects badly on us as a society that it has taken so long, and that we continue to elect so few women to high positions.

 

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