Matt Rourke/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The role of women in leadership is a defining movement for my generation and one of the most pressing global issues of our time. Of the many societal wounds that the current US election has dragged out into the light of day, few feats have been as simultaneously daunting and inspiring to watch as Hillary Clinton’s race towards fracturing that ‘hardest, highest glass ceiling’ of sexism. It has been equally uninspiring to watch Donald Trump’s surge of misogyny culminate in the release of tapes that record him bragging about what can only and incontestably be described as predatory sexual assault.
After the release of the tape, the Republican Party, whose decline has become a threat to global security, seemed to burst at the seams as they put on a show of deep ‘soul searching.’ A “sickened” Paul Ryan declared that women “are to be championed and revered”, while a litany of other Republican men invoked their mothers, wives, sisters and a plethora of other female characters to be found in their lives, while speaking avidly of their anger and disgust at the comments of the man they supported and endorsed as their nominee (tip: don’t treat other people with equality and dignity because of who they are relative to you; do it as an exercise in basic decency).
And then, the aforementioned nominee walked into a debate and, acting in a fashion that was consistent with his behaviour throughout this campaign and, indeed, his entire adult life, called his opponent a “nasty woman.”
Not much time then elapsed before Brian Babin, a Republican congressman from Texas, went on the Alan Colmes Show to offer the dark mirror image to Paul Ryan’s mea culpa. “Sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty,” said Babin, shortly after referring to himself as a “genteel Southerner.”
For those of us who feel the urgent need for a more genuine form of soul searching, it quickly becomes clear that the language and learned behaviours of sexism require daily and rigorous conscientious reflection if we are to overcome the avalanche of male voices declaring (seemingly sympathetically, in the case of Ryan) how women ‘are to be’ treated or, in the case of Babin, what they ‘need to be told.’ The implications in this language are that we are the natural caretakers of an ever-infantilised female species and, in the clearest illumination of their insecurity, the conviction that women ‘need us.’
If anything, the opposite is true. Women make up over half of the world’s population and yet only 18 of our 196 nations currently have female heads of state leading them. That’s under 10%. This stark disparity of representation means that global leadership, by and large, does not reflect the way that the societies of our world actually look. That is an inorganic, counterproductive, self-defeating misrepresentation: a social lie on a massive scale. It also all but guarantees that the wrong message is being sent to half of the human race: a message that discourages their aspirations to the top roles of leadership. That’s a level of disinvestment in human potential that is truly devastating.
It also means that those in charge of passing legislation on issues of intense social and biological intimacy to women are often men who lack the understanding (or, at least, the experience) to fully gauge how their laws impact those they effect. Nowhere was this more apparent than those moments during the final presidential debate where the two candidates answered moderator Chris Wallace’s question on abortion.
A visibly impassioned Clinton dismantled Trump’s assertion that abortions can take place “on the final day” with greater lucidity than we have seen on the presidential debate stage. “Well,” said Clinton “that is not what happens in these cases. And using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate. You should meet with some of the women that I have met with, women I have known over the course of my life. This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.”
When I saw and heard Clinton unequivocally push back against Trump’s party-line statements of intrusion into the gravely personal and often heartbreakingly difficult choices that many women make with regards to their own bodies and their own health, I breathed an audible sigh of relief. I literally felt a burden taken off my own chest. I can't even imagine how this moment must have felt for so many women watching across the world.
To see Hillary Clinton make this argument in her ‘suffragette white’ suit was a moving tribute to the dreams of the suffragettes a century earlier. It was also a powerful response to those men throughout this campaign who have used the language of subversive sexism to say that Clinton does not have a ‘presidential look.’ After wearing red and blue to the first and second debates respectively (red, white and blue to underline the colours of the US flag and therefore the central message of her campaign, “Stronger Together”), her white suit (recalling her acceptance of the Democratic nomination) was a powerful statement on a ‘presidential look’ that has been, so far in the United States, exclusively a male look.
Clinton sent her message loud and clear: I don't intend to adhere to your standards of a presidential look, but I do intend to redefine what that means for generations to come. Her goal is not to look or act ‘masculine’ but, rather, to effect a sea-change in society’s patriarchal narrative.
And that, beyond the decades of Republican enmity towards Clinton, is what fuels the fear, rage and insecurity that we see so constantly assailing her. She may be one of America’s most consistently honest politicians, while her opponent seems to lie whenever he opens his mouth – but that doesn't matter. The narrative of the ‘deceitful woman’ is deeply rooted in our cultural imagination. The chants of “lock her up” may evoke imagery from witch trials of old, but the sad truth is that, for a far larger number of people than we would care to admit, the fact of her being a woman in power makes Clinton an instant criminal.
Where the Obama campaigns shed light on endemic strains of ugly racist sentiment that would be seen as beyond the pale of civilised society by most people, the current Clinton run has illuminated a systemic social plague that seems so subversive, deeply rooted and universally applied as to require even those of us who avidly fight against male privilege to be more rigorously thoughtful in deconstructing our own words and actions on a daily basis.
Obama’s victory changed the face of the presidency and, for black communities across America who represent just over 13% of the population, is significantly and rightly meaningful as a symbol of powerful representation following centuries of oppression. Today, in a representative democracy where females make up more than half the population of the country, Clinton’s election would not simply be resonant. It is also long overdue.
Should she be elected, Clinton would become one of the most seasoned and accomplished politicians to assume the presidency. Over her long history in public life, she has made mistakes, but has demonstrated her ability to learn from them. While acknowledging that her election would not be the panacea to the scourge of misogyny, we would be remiss if we failed to underline the humbling enormity of this historic moment – not just for the roughly 50% of the world's population who are women, but for the other 50% of us as well.