The Highest and Hardest Glass Ceiling: Will 2020 See the Election of America’s First Female President?

Holly Gilder makes the case for a female Democratic nomination for the U.S. 2020 election.

By Holly Gilder

Elizabeth Warren in Muscatine, Iowa, campaigning for the decisive Iowa caucuses.

The promise of the 2020 US election has, for many, seen the possibility of a female President moving ever closer. There are now more women running for a single party’s presidential nomination than ever before with Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard shaping up to be strong contenders in the Democratic primary race. 

Yet, is the reality of an elected Madam president really on the horizon for 2020? Hilary Clinton’s failure to break what she called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling” suggests that there are still considerable obstacles to a female President in the White House. The 2016 election saw Hillary Clinton facing an openly sexist opponent who critiqued her unpresidential look and lack of “stamina”. Trump gained a shocking majority of white female voters, showing that not all of America seems to be ready for a female President. 

Where does this legacy of political sexism come from? Turning to the political history in the US and the reality of 45 male presidents, it is clear that male leadership has become the norm. A long history suggests that the biggest obstacle to a woman aspiring to the highest office is simply that she is not a man. The legacy of a double bind, asking women to be both tough enough to lead but not too tough as to violate norms, has seen the potential of female presidential candidates curtailed time and time again. 

Margeret Smith, the first woman in the US to run for president in 1964, was dubbed ‘unserious’ on the day of her campaign announcement. Even in the 1980s, when women first surpassed men in voter turnouts for elections, Patricia Schroeder’s exit from the 1988 presidential race was seen as evidence of her emotional ‘instability’. Hilary Clinton’s belittlement to a ‘Scolding mother’ in the 2008 primaries saw her efforts at a generalist campaign fail. It became evident that American politics simply didn’t want to ignore gender as a factor in the credibility of its candidates. Sadly, to win a national vote in a presidential system, women must contend more directly with the same sexism and stereotypes that have dominated the political media since Smith’s time.

The daunting reality is that this long history of political sexism has impacted not only those women fighting for the presidency, but also bystander women with aspirations for a political career. Women are considerably less likely to have ambitions to enter politics than their male peers and this has marred female representation across the political system – women make up roughly 20% of the House of Representatives and Senate, and 12% of US governors.

However, America’s past cannot vouch for the complete improbability of a Madame President in 2020. We must not forget that Hillary Clinton technically won the popular vote in 2016, suggesting that the majority of Americans are already eager to elect a female President. Furthermore, with even more women in the pipeline, the reality of a new face in the White House is moving ever closer. Warren’s early popularity, along with the success of Klobuchar, has seen both qualifying for February’s Televised Debate; so far women make up 2/7 of those to do so. 

Warren, however, has recently fallen behind in the polls and with the success of Biden and Sanders, suggests that the leading Democratic candidate will, in fact, be male. Though the reality seemed to be moving ever closer, so is the reality of Trump’s second term in office. For many, this has led to the surprising conclusion that, ‘this is not our time’. The polls mirror the idea that voters seem to think women are less electable than Trump. Biden’s popularity arguably reflects an interest in ‘safer’ and less provocative candidates who can take on Trump’s run for a second term. Therefore, in the context of the Trumpian era seems to reflect that a Madam President may be less ‘powerful’ than her male peers.

Though the outcome of the 2020 election will see a male president, be that through election or re-election, surely, to take a more ambitious outlook, now is not the time to play it safe. Though the outcome of the 2020 election will see a male President – Democrat or Republican – surely now is not the time to play it safe. This election should nominate someone who can rebuild the country and reinstate political trust, of which Warren and Klobuchar are both highly capable. Even if 2020 does not see the first Madame President, it will see those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling continue to grow, ready and waiting for when they will one day break altogether.

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Holly Gilder makes the case for a female Democratic nomination for the U.S. 2020 election.