Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the post, once said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. While she later apologised for the comment, her “hell” would have seen quite a crowd if the results of recent US elections were anything to go by.
Close to 40 per cent of those who voted against Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton were American women. And 53 per cent of white women didn’t vote for her. Whilst Hillary Clinton did not mention the curious irony during her concession speech, instead assuring girls and women of her country that “someday, someone will” shatter “that highest and hardest glass ceiling”, it has been a tough week for feminists around the world.
“Clearly, not all women agreed that it was important to elect a woman. In fact, 53 per cent of white women like me voted against Mrs Clinton, opting instead for a man who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and has been endorsed by the KKK,” said Jessica Bennett in The New York Times. “(P)art of the grief around Mrs Clinton’s loss is symbolism… Clinton represented female power in spite of the reality that a woman’s likability is inverse to her leadership status — that is, we like her less the more she rises — while the opposite is true for men,” she wrote in an editorial titled ‘Girls can be anything, just not president’.
“The emails I’ve gotten from so many women mirror my own feelings: ‘heartbroken’, ‘devastated’, ‘shocked’, and ‘can’t believe it’,” wrote Judith Timson in The Star.
Leonard Greene has a simpler answer to the glass-ceiling question: You have to “blame white women” who “were angry, too”. “When we talk about racism in America, how it’s passed down from generation to generation” it was wrong only to “talk about white men like Trump and the good ol’ boys who keep it going”, he wrote for the New York Daily News.
But the latest setback to breaching the political glass ceiling is befuddling women around the world. It is “now made of rock”, observed Chilean editor Paula Escobar Chavarría in The Huffington Post. “I’m alarmed and disappointed as I realise that machismo and discrimination against women are stronger than before.” She is left asking the question: “How could we think that the so-called ‘land of the free’ was even more machista than our Latino countries?”.
Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli has an answer in The Guardian for what Latin America has seen. It’s been “the extraordinary participation of women in the struggles of the ’70s and ’80s when dictatorial regimes in the region were confronted by popular uprisings, conspiracies and guerrilla groups”, she wrote. Later, these women found that they don’t want to be stuck to the kitchen, and began organising powerful social movements, NGOs and feminist organisations.
With figures such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, Dilma Roussef in Brazil and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, Latin American women have access to a level of political representation second only to the Scandinavian countries, wrote Belli, while quickly putting this finding in perspective: “In the patriarchal structure of power we have all inherited, very often women are still forced to prove that they are as ‘tough’ as the toughest of men. A woman president who would defy the masculine model of power and infuse it with the feminine ethic of caring and real equality is still in the making.”
Vox.com, however, pointed out that things might not be as gloomy as they seem: After all, the US Senate now has more women than ever before. And they are more diverse too: For example, there are the two first Indian-American Congresswomen, Pramila Jayapal and Kamala Harris; Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina; Tammy Duckworth the first Thai-American Senator; and Ilhan Omar, a former refugee, the first Somali-American lawmaker.
The election night actually was “a night for broken glass ceilings”, as per Andrew Mullins of the conservative Media Research Center, “albeit, not the glass ceiling that many liberal pundits were expecting to be broken”. He added that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, for instance, was the first ever woman to successfully run a presidential campaign. “Her hard work undoubtedly helped paved the way” for Trump’s victory, Mullins wrote.
But could it be as easy as that: Just hard work?
Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Department at American University, once told German newspaper taz that the biggest problem in the US is that “women don’t run for office”. “The few that do are achieving as well as men. They win as many elections, raise as much money and are mentioned in the media as often”, but the reason they don’t run for office is that they have more often self-doubts and think that they have to be twice as good as men.
There might be another factor, which has been discussed following a book published by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this September: It’s that very often, mothers still have it even more difficult. The Sunday Times published an excerpt in which Sturgeon openly talked about having no children and having a miscarriage at the age of 40. “If the miscarriage hadn’t happened, would I be sitting here as first minister right now? It’s an unanswerable question,” she said. “I’d like to think yes, because I could have shown that having a child wasn’t a barrier to all of this, but in truth I don’t know.”
Two powerful women leaders in Europe are actually childless — Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Theresa May. It’s hard to speculate where they would be today if they had children.
Writing for The Guardian, Jessica Smith argued that they might have succeeded, but on an average, four years later than their male counterparts. Talat Yaqoob, founder of the Scottish campaign ‘Women 50:50’, concurred, telling the paper that “maternity discrimination and childcare difficulties are very real issues in politics”.