Miss.Representation: Why the Glass Ceiling Matters Even After Hillary Clinton Lost
By Kristina Ching
In November, 2016, in the dawn of arguably the most controversial presidential election in American political history, we, as a country, could have been ushered into an entirely new era of representation as of three weeks ago. Although Hillary Clinton was the first female popular party nominee to run for president, her journey to the White House ended with Donald Trump’s election. Her loss brings so much into perspective and into light in a national context. The United States tends to hold itself on a pedestal on the global stage, standing as a shining example of liberty and democracy, making the harsh reality of our politics incredibly striking. It seems that it surprises even the most politically active and aware citizens that the US ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in our national legislature.
Our claims to be an exemplary nation of equality and modernity are so blatantly contradicted by our place on this ranking. We fall behind so many of what we often view as “third-world” nations. Cuba, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, among numerous others we frequently look down upon, are more progressive in their representation of women in the political sphere. We have yet to catch up to Pakistan, one of the most dangerous countries for women in the world. Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, known more widely for the massive 1994 genocide, than as an example of an extremely successful female-run nation, tops the list with 63.8% representation by women in their upper house.
The US, on the other hand, comes up exceptionally short. American women are hugely underrepresented in our elected offices. Women are represented the most in the Senate, comprising only a meager 20%. Even less, 19.4%, serve in the House of Representatives, and even less than that, 19.3%, hold seats in Congress. At our current rate of progression, women won’t receive equal representation in US politics for 500 more years.
Acknowledging this, the discussion I had prior to the election in my AP United States History class seems more fitting. The class was debating the Mexican-American war, and one student had asked what we would have done as an American citizen during this time if we had opposed the conflict. After a couple responses, our teacher shifted the focus, arguing that it was difficult to put the situation into perspective because many of us would not have even been in the US at the time, as our families immigrated here much later. So instead, she posed the same question, but this time regarding a hypothetical war in the Middle East that we were about to enter. We were asked what we would do today, if we were about to be forced into a war we didn’t support.
Many of the answers were prefaced with disclaimers, “As a teenager,” “As a highschooler,” “Since I’m not an adult yet,” “Because I’m only a student,” “I can’t vote yet, so,” followed by various explanations as to why their opinions didn’t matter or held no actual weight. This soon morphed into a different kind of preface. “I’m a girl so,” “As a woman,” “As a teenage girl,” “Since I’m only a girl,” began to prelude some responses, and it did not go unnoticed.
The girls were stopped, discussion was halted, and we were asked if we really believed that our opinions mattered less or were not heard in politics. Almost immediately, there was a unanimous, resounding, yes. I even surprised myself with how readily I had agreed. The boys said the same. Women’s voices did not hold the same influence as men’s in the political sphere.
This discussion happened just prior to November 8th, so, naturally, the next question was about the democratic frontrunner and the impending election. “What if Hillary Clinton was elected, would that change anything?” The general consensus, almost unsurprisingly at this point, was no, America electing a female Head of State would not change much. Some students pointed to the way she was being viewed as a candidate, and how some people opposed her solely because they did not believe a woman should hold office.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the discussion all day. It still has not left my mind, and after the election, it’s become even more important to talk about. It made me realize that I was subconsciously aware that my opinion didn’t carry as much weight as my male peers. Even in my own personal experiences in Model United Nations, where I debated diplomacy and international relations, I’ve realized that I even possess this bias to an extent. Women do face certain levels of discrimination and have to challenge long-standing prejudices, but those aren’t the only facets of this complex issue.
Mrs.Zechiel has been a US History teacher at Tustin High for six years and her reaction to our discussion speaks volumes about the issue of representation. She described her feelings, explaining, “Obviously I’m a woman myself so it’s disheartening to hear that young, high school girls, even if they’re in programs like MUN, or STEM where they’re being raised up as leaders, feel like they don’t have a voice. It’s hard to combat. As a teacher, I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to show them that they have a voice?’”
“It saddens me greatly that so many young women, especially women who are in leadership positions at the school, feel like their voices aren’t heard. It makes me wonder what we can do to make sure that people feel heard and understood, that both young men and young women at Tustin High School feel like they have a voice. In the world too, not just here.”
Her words of advice: “It’s important to not become jaded, to fight for your voice to be heard, to pursue ways in which you can be heard. Be it on a small level like Facebook ranting, or a large level like writing a congressman, giving a speech, writing a news article, there are things that high school students can do to make their voices heard, especially if it’s an issue that they deeply care about.”
She used the Chicano rights movement of the 60s as an example of a group of young people using their voice to make change, “They were willing to accept consequences for actions that they believed to be ethically correct even though they broke rules to do them, and ultimately that’s important.”
My interview with her ended with these final thoughts, “I have a lot of faith in the kids I teach. Especially after I see them go off to college and doing awesome things. I see the potential in our student leaders, but if they don’t see potential in themselves, there’s not a lot I can do. I can only encourage them and make sure they know what they have to say does matter. Even in the smallest contexts of a class assignment or in the largest context of a national election, what you have to say does matter.”
Studies have shown that women aren’t disproportionately affected when it comes to votes. The problem lies within the number of women who run for office, and who enter the world of politics in the first place. Many fear judgement, and the prejudices they know they’ll face. Politicians are expected to be strong, tough, and direct, qualities typically associated with men in government. Women vying for positions face the challenge of possessing these qualities while simultaneously coming across as feminine and ladylike and avoiding being seen as weak.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is a clear example of these challenges. She was criticized from very early on in the race for not being feminine enough. Articles with headlines like “Hillary Clinton talks more like a man than she used to,” “Hillary should play up her feminine side,” “Would we like Hillary more if she was man?” and “Man Enough?” flooded the internet and media outlets soon after the first debate. It’s terrifying to realize that it has been nearly a century since women were granted the right to vote, yet there are still citizens who firmly believe a woman should not be our Commander-in-Chief.
So, although women aren’t discriminated against majorly in polling booths, our preconceived notions of female candidates have halted our progress towards political equality. There’s a fundamental problem in having a male-dominated legislative body make decisions that most significantly affect only women. We cannot claim to stand for a shining democracy if we are not upholding those values of equality and representative government.
Studies have shown strong correlations between the amount of female legislators and the progressiveness of policy being passed on issues ranging from comprehensive family support to violence prevention to microeconomic management to incarceration. Other research has found that women legislators, from both parties, introduce marginally more bills than their male counterparts regarding health, labor, education, and civil rights. It has been proven that nations with female legislators perform better economically, and one merely has to look to the growing continent of Africa for proof of this.
Many countries have established political parties that place a priority on the recruitment of female politicians, and some have even set certain minimums for representation, forcing their governments to meet positive quotas. Representation is a massive part of democracy and whether or not implementing policies like these is the right way to go about narrowing the disparity between genders, it’s unquestionable that they can make a difference.
Hillary Clinton will most likely not be the United State’s first female president, but her campaign is confirmation that progress is possible. She ended her concession speech by expressing her regret that she could not be the one to surpass the glass ceiling but said, “Someday, someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.” She urged young girls across the country to, “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance of pursuing your own dreams.”
Today, if I could only hope for one thing, I would hope that there isn’t a little girl out there who thinks she can’t be president of the United States of America. But until the US takes some massive steps forward in the way we view female politicians, and as women, in the way we view ourselves, the lack of representation will continue to stand as an obstacle for us. Until we do something, anything, to change the way we are represented, we can’t continue to hold ourselves as an exemplary democracy.
So even after the presidential race is long over, even after we inaugurate our 45th male president, even after Hillary Clinton becomes just another politician who came close to the presidency, we need to keep fighting. Representation is important. It’s a pillar of democracy, and it makes in enormous difference in the way our country is run. Women across the United States are ready. Hillary Clinton believes that, our educators believe that, our mothers believe that, and as the future of America, we need to believe it ourselves. The glass ceiling stands tall, and it’s just waiting for someone like you or me to shatter it.