Some women I know are talking about running for office. It’s an attractive idea and an empowering response to a devastating turn. Many sense a new obligation to seek political power after Hillary Clinton’s loss.
That’s a bright silver lining to the presidential election, which many of us saw as a highly qualified woman losing to a man with no governing experience. I’m not alone in looking for that silver lining; The Associated Press and The Washington Post have written about 20- and 30-something women submitting their names for local school boards and city council seats.
And yet, the promise of women jumping into the political arena could easily be wishful thinking. In fact, the brutal 2016 election might have convinced more women that politics isn’t worth it. That would be dispiriting, as I believe a feminine ethos is needed to improve education, environmental protection, health care, retirement security, and the working lives of parents and other caregivers.
As a nation, we’ve been at this juncture before. In the early 1990s, when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, former aide Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment in televised hearings before Congress. Outrage about how she was treated, in part, led to the election of four women to the U.S. Senate in 1992. We dubbed it “The Year of the Woman.”
Twenty-four years later, it seems that great opening wasn’t sustained. Come January, only 19 percent of Congress will be female.
This election year was so much harsher than 1992. T-shirts said “Trump that bitch.” Fake news circulated about a Clinton aide’s connection to a Washington pizza parlor that was a front for a pedophilia ring. At least some of the 42 percent of women who voted for Donald Trump believed his claim that Clinton was cynically playing the “woman card” to get elected.
Jennifer Lawless, the director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, told The Atlantic, “I think the defeat has the potential to set back female candidates’ emergence. Women are less likely to think they have thick enough skin to endure the rigors of the campaign trail, and to contend that voters will vote for them, donors will give to them, and the media will cover them fairly.”
Also in the silver-lining crowd is Wall Street legend Sallie Krawcheck. She says Trump’s win could motivate business women to seek leadership roles. Fortune published Krawcheck’s call-to-arms Tuesday in the form of a letter to her young daughter: The girl cried and vowed to “accomplish something important [in] life,” she wrote of her daughter’s reaction to Clinton’s loss.
Yet, even so, Krawcheck had to admit that there’s “a perilously thin line of acceptable behavior” for women leaders — especially those who wear their strength and ambition boldly like Clinton.
Some countries have set quotas for women in elective office. In 1993, India amended its constitution to reserve one-third of village council seats for women. Also, one-third of council leaders, or pradhans, had to be female.
At the start, just 5 percent of council seats were held by India’s women. By 2005, the experiment had exceeded its 33 percent quota, with 40 percent of seats in women’s hands. The result has been a greater focus of village councils on clean water, police responsiveness, roads and education. Parents in villages that have had two female pradhans are more likely to want their daughters to study past high school. They see a potential future for them in political office. Do we?
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.