The 2020 presidential election is more than a year away, but that hasn't stopped me from religiously following news about the candidates from day one. A large number of Penn students—including me—will vote for presidency for the first time next November, and I'm already hyped to get to the ballot box. The next election is an important one for many reasons, but one that doesn't stick out as much as it should is the sheer number of women running for president.
For some of us, the gender of the candidates might be an afterthought. That's certainly how I felt when I tuned into the first Democratic Party primary debates in June and saw that six of the 20 candidates on the stage were women. It wasn't until later that I realized six is a lot, especially since not too long ago, the idea of a woman as president came as a complete shock. So how did we get here?
The history of women candidates is sparse in places, but it’s surprisingly long. The first woman to declare her candidacy was Victoria Woodhull, the nominee of the Equal Rights Party in the election of 1872. More than a century later, we still haven’t had a woman president, but countless lawmakers, activists, and community leaders have paved the way—including Margaret Chase Smith, Patsy Mink, and Shirley Chisholm, to name a few.
Running for president as a woman was a statement, but getting a major party’s nomination—not even considering actually winning—was a pipe dream. It wasn’t until 2008 that Americans faced the possibility of having a successful woman candidate, one who could challenge 200 years of history that celebrated the presidency as the most powerful—and exclusively masculine—office in the country.
Like her policies or not, Hillary Clinton flew past a milestone no one else had reached when she squared off against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination; both candidates received almost the same percentage of the popular vote. Her campaign faced a number of challenges, but attacks on her policies and character certainly benefited from her gender. When male candidates were labelled “confident” or “aggressive,” Clinton was “bitchy” and “condescending.” Former CNN host Glenn Beck called her voice “nagging” and asked his audience, “After four years, don`t you think every man in America will go insane?”
The Washington Post even published an article analyzing the meaning behind her cleavage. The whole piece made me glad I was too young to remember the election. Imagine running for president, only to find that people would rather investigate the sexual implications of your neckline than the merits of your tax reform. And that was just two elections ago.
Clinton lost the nomination, but it was the closest a woman had been to becoming president. Sarah Palin passed a milestone alongside Clinton in 2008 by becoming the first woman vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party. In the next election, Michele Bachmann ran for the Republican Party nomination, and in 2016, Carly Fiorina and Jill Stein joined Clinton, the first woman to secure a major party’s nomination, as female candidates given a national platform to voice their ideas for the country. I grew up watching these women tell the world they could be the one to solve the country's problems. To say it was empowering would be an understatement.
Of course, Clinton lost, but it was an even closer race than 2008. In fact, she won 2.1% more of the popular vote. Nearly 66 million people nationwide believed in a woman president. At Penn, the vote went overwhelmingly to the candidate whose slogan read, "I'm With Her." And Penn for Hillary was a major force on campus during the elections, pushing for students to elect "a woman who has spent her entire life fighting for women."
Now onto the present day. The 2020 election is far in the future, but the women running are already changing the game. As a kid, I heard journalists, politicians, and commentators question repeatedly whether a woman had the ability to win the presidency, but I can tell that this election is going to be different. The six candidates now have the chance to turn their experiences as women into political strengths.
Kirsten Gillibrand has made gender central to her campaign; in addition to introducing herself “as a young mom,” she has an entire page on her website dedicated to policies for women and families. Elizabeth Warren is less pointed in her approach, but she still draws upon her history as a special–needs teacher, a female–dominated profession, when she advocates for universal childcare and preschool education.
Other candidates work to defy gender stereotypes. Kamala Harris brands herself as tough and career-focused when she highlights her time as California’s attorney general, declaring on the debate stage, “[W]e need a nominee who has the ability to prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump.” Tulsi Gabbard similarly emphasizes her identity as an Iraq War veteran to showcase her strength against the current president.
Although these candidates have greater control over how gender plays into their campaigns, the same sexist criticisms from ten years ago persist today. Warren is “shrill” and “needs to fix her voice.” Harris’s past relationship with former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown is a salacious “extramarital affair,” even though Brown separated from his wife more than a decade before they dated.
At Penn, students are already beginning to organize around their chosen candidates, displaying renewed vigor in the aftermath of Clinton's loss and Trump's presidency. Emotions ran high for students in the days leading up to and after the 2016 election, resulting in many feeling "extremely upset" at the results. Ever since then, people have mobilized to increase political participation—the 2018 midterm elections broke records in voter turnout on campus.
Given students' increased interest in what's happening in Washington, D.C., it's likely that Penn will pay greater attention to the candidates challenging Trump for the presidency, including the six female opponents. Penn4Warren is already up and active with 40 followers on Facebook, and Penn for Kamala seems to be in the works.
No matter how the election turns out on Penn's campus or around the country, there’s no doubt that we’ve made progress from ten years ago. There are more women contending for a major party’s nomination than there have ever been, and people are taking them seriously as candidates. We might not get a “Madam President” this election or the next, but the idea is no longer a pipe dream. It’s a glass ceiling with a century’s worth of fractures.