The Last Glass Ceiling
The year of 2016 can only be described as a collective fever dream that we can’t seem to wake up from – a referendum that has caused more family rifts than Monopoly, an international refugee crisis and the death of Bowie, Prince and Alan Rickman within the space of a few months.
Yet nothing has caused me to try and pinch myself awake so much as the US Presidential election.
2016 has been a significant year for women in politics, the UK boasts it’s second, if not necessarily elected, female Prime Minister, and the US bought forward its first female presidential nominee for a major party since, ever – in what Hillary herself refers to as ‘the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet’. The opportunity for a female president has been a long (long long long) time coming, and yet not wildly surprising, considering only 20% of the representatives in US government are women, an embarrassing statistic that puts them 97th in the global table (though the UK fares slightly better, fewer than a third of our parliamentary representatives are women).
A woman’s right to vote is less than a century old in the UK and US, and it would be fair to state that the path to female representation in politics has not been an easy one. Too often the views and policies of female politicians are belittled by media obsession with their appearance, social ideas about the femininity and character, or occasionally by their colleagues through condescending and dismissive comments.
Why is the discussion around female politicians and leaders so gendered? Is it the lack of representation, or a sad reflection of our opinion of women in general?
In 1992, Deborah Tannen, a columnist for The New York Times, coined the term, ‘The Hillary Factor’. Coincidental as this may seem, it’s an insightful analysis of the way we view women in power. Tannen writes, ‘The real Hillary Factor is the double bind that affects all successful or accomplished women – indeed all women who do not fit stereotypical images of femininity: women who are not clearly submissive are seen as dominating and reviled for it. Women who do fit the images are not taken seriously.’
Tannen’s observation describes the difficulty of manoeuvring the political sphere as a woman, when social ideas about femininity are incompatible with the qualities we associate with leaders. This is particularly emphasised for leaders who are mothers; with assumptions about their role as a care giver. ‘No woman can escape the Motherhood Bind. If you’re not a Mother, you’re a Failed Woman. If you are a Mother, you can’t have enough attention to pay to serious work. If you are paying attention to serious work, you must be a Bad Mother.’
There’s a significant amount of research that has acknowledged these social prejudices and how they impact women’s fight to break through that ‘last glass ceiling’. What remains so significant about the current US election however, is not only the importance of Hillary’s nomination, but the explicit misogyny expressed by the Republican opposition, Donald Trump.
When a leaked video of Trump from 2005 found it’s way into mainstream media, so abhorrent was the manner in which he spoke about women, particularly where consent was involved, that a number of notable Republicans withdrew their support for the multi-millionaire.
While this may have been the final nail in the conservative coffin for many, it certainly begs the question, ‘Why was he nominated in the first place?’ Trump’s perception of women is evident in the way he openly objectifies them, often rating them out of 10 – ‘A women who is flat-chested is hard to be a 10‘ – and calling them pigs, dogs and bimbos.
He has spoken about the attractiveness of his daughter Ivanka Trump with an incredible amount of inappropriateness and has had lawsuits filed against him for sexual assault, including the rape of a 13-year-old girl and his ex-wife Ivana.
Such undeniable levels of misogyny has created even further conversation about gender within this election. His policies on abortion and the role of women in the home and society, leave a lot to be desired. This isn’t just about how people perceive women in power but about how women and their bodies are sought to be controlled.
Despite the concrete evidence of Trump’s chauvinism and the claims made against him, he still boasts a significant following, even from women, indicative of a statement he made before his nomination – “I could shoot somebody and still not lose voters.”
Women who have spoken out about his behaviour have only prompted further abuse. When fivethirtyeight.com ran an infographic that showed that Trump would supposedly win the presidency by a landslide if only men voted, Trump supporters began to ‘tweet’ the hashtag ‘#repealthe19th‘, with reference to the 19th amendment of the US constitution that gives women the right to the vote. With a simple image, hundreds of people expressed their support to deny women suffrage. This is the type of America Trump represents.
While 2016 has seen amazing progress for women in politics, the misogyny that their very presence seems to elicit is a sad reflection of the progress that still needs to be made.