In 1871, the first woman to run for the American presidency offered a prediction worth pausing on as we approach Election Day in 2016. “Little as the public think it,” Victoria Woodhull then asserted, “a woman who is now nominated may be elected next year. Less change of opinion than has occurred already… will place her in the White House.” Nearly a century and a half later, Hillary Clinton has made history as the first woman to serve as the standard-bearer of a major political party. Woodhull’s confidence, borne of the optimism that accompanied Reconstruction Era amendments expanding political liberties for African-American men, has yet to be vindicated. Will it be in 2016?
That depends in part on the answers to some vexing questions about the role of gender in the presidential race. First among them is whether longstanding resistance to a female chief executive has truly evaporated, as opinion polls suggest. For much of the twentieth century, that opposition remained robust, with some 40 percent of Americans polled affirming as late as 1969 that they would not vote for a woman President, even if she was qualified and nominated by their own political party. The modern women’s movement, and the entry of more women into national political life, made a striking difference in those views relatively quickly. By the time Shirley Chisholm ran in 1972, less than 30 percent expressed an unwillingness to vote for a woman President.
Today’s polls indicate very little hesitation among voters, and indeed some enthusiasm, about casting their ballot for a female candidate. Nonetheless, no woman has yet been elected. The reasons for this are varied, but one has surely grown out of the dual nature of the American presidency, which combines the roles of head of state with commander in chief. The widespread assumption that women lack the capacity or the appetite to wage war, plan strategy, make treaties
with other powers, or oversee foreign policy has been longstanding. In the early twentieth century, several of the most visible women in national public life—Jane Addams, most notably—were strongly identified with pacifism. That association, considered by many disqualifying for the highest office in the land, clung to activist women long after it accurately described them. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has been criticized for being both too bellicose by those who decry her support for the Iraq war, and too lax in her attention to national security. Whatever the merits or weaknesses of these charges, they echo longstanding doubts that have dogged other women presidential candidates. Margaret Chase Smith was an inveterate Cold Warrior who nonetheless faced concern that she lacked the strength to lead on the world stage. Shirley Chisholm incurred accusations of gross irresponsibility and even insanity for her unswerving opposition to the Vietnam War.
Voters will face a real candidate in November, however, not a historical trend. And it will be a candidate very familiar to the electorate, which has followed her career since she was First Lady. Long the subject of fierce attacks by partisan opponents, and the target of perhaps more federal investigations than any female political figure in recent or distant memory, Clinton has seen her popularity wax and wane. She has, nonetheless, overcome the doubts that prevented every woman candidate before her from securing a major party’s nomination. Those doubts were rooted in part in concerns that voters would not elect a woman President—a worry that made it impossible for female candidates to raise the vast amount of money necessary to wage an effective national campaign.
In the volatile dynamics of 2016, gender appears woven, for better or worse, into the warp and woof of the race. The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party have promoted the prospect of electing the first woman President. Their Republican opponent, on the other hand, has excoriated Clinton for “playing the woman card”—she has “nothing else” to offer beyond her sex, Donald Trump has asserted. This divide is a familiar one whenever women candidates have been in the presidential arena. Although Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for votes not because of her gender when she ran in 1964, she embraced the role of path-breaker. She also endured unrelenting commentary about her sex, including oft-repeated claims that, at 66, she was too old—and menopausal—to serve as President. Donald Trump’s propensity to boast of his hyper-masculinity and to cast his male primary opponents as “weak,” likewise inevitably invokes the gender difference of the candidates.
Gender remains terra incognita in a final key respect: how the “gender gap,” apparent since the 1980s, will play out with a woman at the top of a major party’s ticket. For the past 36 years, women have voted more often for Democratic than Republican presidential candidates by an average of 8 percentage points. The widest divide came in 2000, when women chose Al Gore over George W. Bush by a margin of 12 percent. Women favored Obama over his Republican opponents in both 2008 and 2012, by 7 percent and 10 percent respectively. Current polling shows a wide gender gap of as much as 16 percent for Clinton in 2016. Race, however, is an important variable in assessing how men respond to the Democratic nominee. Clinton is a polarizing figure for white men, but African-American and Hispanic men favor her over Donald Trump by huge margins, as do African-American and Hispanic women.
Given these trends, there is no room for a candidate to alienate women. They are a decisive force in the electorate, not only because they have favored the Democratic candidate in the last nine elections, but also because they turn out to vote faithfully. There is ample opportunity for Clinton to exploit her greater favorability among older women voters especially. While long held assumptions that women would uniformly rally around any woman who ran for President have never been sustained historically, women have nonetheless played an essential part in mobilizing support for female political candidates.
That brings us back to Victoria Woodhull’s forecast in the early 1870s that a woman President was on the horizon. Until now, voters have never been faced with a choice in the voting booth that could realistically place a woman in the White House, and not as a First Lady. Some Clinton skeptics express enthusiasm in theory for breaking “the highest glass ceiling.” They aver, however, that they await a “better woman candidate.” If Clinton doesn’t win, history suggests they may have a very long wait.