Madame President or Mrs. President, which should it be? We are on the cusp of developing a whole new vocabulary for describing the first woman to be the leader of the free world yet, there has been strangely little focus on just how historic this is. I know I share the sentiment of so many women, and men, in saying my heart leaps for joy thinking about uttering the words Madame President for the first time. I see three reasons why electing Hillary is so momentous.
Women are regularly held to a higher standard than their male counterparts in proving they are qualified for a job. Studies document that while men are promoted and compensated for future potential, women are promoted and compensated for previously demonstrated competency. This election may be the ultimate example of this phenomenon in action. Hillary Clinton is among the most, if not the most, qualified person to ever be elected to the presidency. But Clinton is not just qualified, she is uniquely qualified to be both the next president and the first woman president.
Hillary is qualified in the way the principal of my sons’ high school is qualified. Our principal grew up in my town, sent her children to the high school, taught at the school, was a dean at the school (four deans coordinate 2000+ students), served as assistant principal at the high school, and ultimately became principal. She is so fantastic at her job because her experience emanates from so many perspectives. She can appreciate the concerns of parents, the challenges of teachers, and the demands of administrators all from lived experience.
Similarly Clinton will bring a kaleidoscope of experience to the presidency: as a working mother balancing the complexities of care and career, as a First Lady trying to change the rules of engagement, as a wife deeply hurt and publicly shamed, as an elected official wholly committed to supporting women and families, as a foreign policy leader with a front row seat to the most difficult decisions a president must make, and as a grandmother reveling in the potential of her grandchildren and wanting to ensure all children have that same chance. Most importantly, Clinton has walked the extraordinarily challenging road of redefining who women can be in the world over more than four decades. Her life story is the story of middle class America leading to great things with an enormous twist, like Ginger Rogers she’s done it walking backwards and in high heels.
Clinton has been a leader her whole life registering many firsts across the decades. At Wellesley College, she was elected class president and was the first student to address the class at commencement. She entered corporate law practice in her late 20’s and at 32 became the first woman partner at her firm. Her political work on the national stage began in her mid-40’s when Hillary became the First Lady of the United States and felt the sting of a country not ready for a president’s wife to play a policy role. Despite huge opposition to her efforts to reform health care, Clinton triumphed with bi-partisan support for a children’s health insurance program that continues today.
As First Lady she captivated the world at the UN Women’s Conference in 1996 first uttering the words, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” She began her race for the U.S. Senate, the first First Lady to run for elected office, by crisscrossing the state of New York to listen and learn. As a brand new senator when tragedy struck, she became an advocate for 9/11 victims and handily went on to win a second senatorial term. Next up Clinton confronted another first, running for president. Her loss in the primaries was followed by an unexpected invitation and acceptance to join the President’s cabinet as Secretary of State. In the current election, Clinton channeled all she had learned in her 2008 presidential run to capture the 2016 Democratic nomination, the first woman ever to do so.
Now let’s consider Trump’s background. Supported by family money, Trump started rich and has always been rich not only with the first $1 million dollar loan from his father but with multiple infusions over several decades. Lauded as a successful business man, his main purported credential, his track record hardly paints a picture of success. He has driven several businesses into bankruptcy, he’s touted endless businesses that closed (Trump steaks, Trump magazine, Trump airlines, you get the pattern), he regularly abused contractors paying them only a fraction of their bill, if any at all, and when the going got tough, he made sure he collected his share while leaving his partners, suppliers, and employees out in the cold. How can this possibly be construed as a profile of business leadership? That wasn’t the definition of leader I learned about in business school.
How about political experience? Trump has never even been the county recorder and seemingly has no clue how laws get made or how they work. Remember those checks and balances you learned about in social studies? Apparently Trump missed that class. He is going to make America great again single handedly, just ask him. And he lacks even a basic understanding of sexual assault and the notion of consent. Trump has no demonstrated ability to work across difference, responds to criticism like a cornered animal, and shows little ability to learn new skills, like listening for a start. If ever there was a contest between competence and inaptitude, this presidential election would be it. Throw in Trump’s volatility, vindictiveness, arrogance and destructive nature, all currently on full display as he follows his torch-the-earth strategy.
The contrast between how extraordinarily unqualified and unsuitable Trump is in comparison to how extraordinarily qualified and suited Clinton is to be president makes one’s head spin. Does that mean Clinton is a perfect candidate, or that she hasn’t made mistakes through time, some egregious? Of course not. Who in 40 years of public service could claim that completely unrealistic standard? Yet Clinton’s record of possible transgressions pales in comparison to Trump’s. Turning over arguably the most important job in the world to a man lacking the baseline skills and qualities ahead of a woman with an astoundingly full set is sexism gone mad.
Based on a 25 year analysis, Clinton’s favorability rating crashed each time she reached for power, something women are not supposed to do, while once she was in power being her competent self, her ratings shot up. Just ask yourself, would a woman with Trump’s profile and personality have even been elected to the local city council? Clinton’s victory will validate the experience of so many women by demonstrating that competence can overcome bias.
The power of role modeling
Clinton has been labeled as the establishment candidate in this race, yet this description is dead wrong. Yes she has been involved with politics for many years, and in several different roles, but that is where the comparison ends. A few days after the first presidential debate I read yet another article characterizing Clinton as a steady hand who can keep the country on its current course while Trump is a radical agent of change.
As someone who has spent more than 20 years researching and consulting on gender diversity, I am certain that Clinton’s election WILL constitute radical change. Clinton’s victory will be a game changer for women and the world.
Clinton’s presidency will constitute radical change because for the first time every little girl in the U.S. can say I want to be president, just like Hillary Clinton. They will see her on television, they will hear people talk about her, and they will know girls can be president too. It will be a radical change because for the first time in American history a woman will be the one setting the vision for our country, a vision that reflects her lived experience as a female. While women have made great gains over the last 50 years, they continue to remain sparsely represented as the top leader in all public domains: business, academia and government. Based on a recent McKinsey/ LeanIn research report, at the current rate of progress women in corporate America will not see parity for more than 100 years.
Clinton’s election will be radical because for the first time ever we will have a First Gentleman in the White House which will redefine the vision of that important role. It will be radical because in 20 years or 50 years or 100 years, girls will be able to read about our first woman president in their history books. Role models are incredibly powerful. In a visceral way, they make the impossible seem possible and symbolize that someone like me could aspire to that future.
An intense irony of the election is that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been characterized as change agents but let’s consider that assertion. Bernie is a self-declared socialist and has spent the better part of his life as an Independent. He ignited a movement, particularly among young people, to shift the country considerably further to the left with key platforms like a universal health care system and the elimination of tuition at state colleges. But the reality is, Sanders has spent the better part of 40 years in politics. How can a white male career politician suddenly become an outsider? Yes Bernie has been a very liberal, powerful left leaning voice but, he’s been an insider none the less.
Clinton has been criticized by liberals for being too moderate in her positions yet her moderation has enabled her to work across the aisle, be effective, and craft legislation that actually became law. I have no doubt that without being politically moderate, Clinton would have been marginalized and expelled from the system long ago. Instead she stands a whisper from the presidency. Interestingly, Hillary too looked down on compromise as a young woman, imagining a world where the impossible could be possible.
Part of the problem with just empathy, with professed goals, is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.
From Clinton’s 1969 Wellesley graduation speech
The dominant narrative has been of Trump as the business man who will show those politicians how to run the country like he’s run his business (shudder at the thought). Trump certainly likes to sell himself as the outsider, the voice of the every-person, but in Trump’s case the every-man. Yet what does Trump know of the every-man? He’s mistreated endless every-man workers just trying to make a living and he failed to pay millions of dollars taxes over two decades to fund the vast array of supports that the every-man depends on: health insurance, education, veterans’ benefits and more.
Trump minimizes the crucial role that his father’s connections, and his access to readily-available cash over several decades, played in enabling his business success. Are these supports even a pipe dream for the every-man? And now Trump’ policies – the few he has articulated – reflect HIS priorities with few benefits for the every-man and nearly none for the every-woman. Trump may be a political outsider but he is the epitome of an enormously privileged white man whose success has been fueled by so many advantages he can’t even see. Trump in his words and deeds is anathema to empowering women. He is the ultimate gender status quo!
The beacon of feminine power Perhaps the most exciting part of Hillary Clinton becoming the next President of the United States is that she will bring her feminine world view to the job which powerfully connects to so many of the issues and priorities that women value. Women, especially millennial women, hew strongly Democratic because they see in the policies what matters to them in their lives. I am acutely aware that women are hardly one big monolithic group all wanting the same thing and sharing the same priorities. That said, what I do know as someone connected to women’s leadership for decades is that Clinton’s lifelong priorities speak to the challenges that women face and enable women to live most fully. Clinton’s influence will help create a world that so many women want to inhabit. A world where:
- Women can no longer be economically short-changed, relative to their male counterparts, and can count on equal pay for equal work. As a result, they will have greater resources to care for themselves and their families.
- Care work is supported by providing paid time off for critical life events such as personal illness or caring for a child or family member.
- Care work is no longer marginalized and compensated at poverty level wages (held overwhelmingly by women.) Instead it is seen as, and funded as, an important element of infrastructure enabling our citizenry to work.
- Women can count on access to safe, accessible reproductive care and no one has the right to legislate a woman’s reproductive decisions. (How is it that the GOP stridently opposes the government’s right to control guns yet simultaneously espouses the right to control women’s bodies? Do guns not threaten human life?)
- It is broadly understood that a woman’s control over her reproductive decisions is among the most critical determinants of her economic well-being. (How is it that the GOP argues for the sanctity of life but has no trouble abandoning that life post-utero by devaluing and persistently cutting funding for support services?)
- Health care is no longer seen as a privilege to be earned but as a basic requirement of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Reliable, affordable health care enables women to care for their children and supports far greater flexibility in their careers.
- Adequate resourcing is funneled toward education and healthcare rather than the endless need for bigger and better weapons.
- We never forget that America and immigration are synonymous and we realize that diversity is the lifeblood of who we are as a nation.
- Military policy is thoughtful, measured, collaborative and slow to violence.
- We evolve our mindset to see ourselves as nurturers of our planet rather than as malevolent masters extracting resources at our whim.
Trump reflects all the worst stereotypes of male power. It is power over characterized by aggression, hierarchy, entitlement, unrecognized privilege, and fear. It is about winning and losing and ego. Let me be absolutely clear that many men do not see or use power in this way but those that do, like Trump, are a disaster (his favorite word). Perhaps most importantly, Clinton’s victory will demonstrate feminine power – power with – that is far more oriented toward collaboration, compassion, shared purpose, caretaking and hope. My heart sings with the vision of Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office where feminine power can burn bright.