(WOMENSENEWS)– How does Hillary Clinton–who announced this week she’s running for president– get around the charge that she’s old news?
By reminding people that electing the first American female president would be a milestone in the history of this republic.
Abigail Adams told her patriot husband John Adams in 1776, "I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
His answer set the tone that women would hear for the next two centuries when they sought political power: "Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight."
Political power was slower than molasses in coming to women in the new nation. Women were denied the vote–the basic right in a democracy– for 144 years. Black males were granted the vote after the Civil War by the 15th amendment in 1870. All women were banned from casting ballots until 1920.
I have been reporting on and commenting about politics for more than four decades, and have had a front row seat from which to view women’s glacial progress. As a Washington journalist, I covered the first woman ever elected to a full term in the Senate without her husband having previously served in Congress, Nancy Landon Kassebaum.
It was 1978 when she was elected. It only took 202 years from the founding of the republic.
I also covered Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1981. Two hundred and five years on that one.
The website Democracy notes, "The United States is a country of astonishing diversity, yet public offices continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Women are 51 percent of the population, but make up only 24 percent of state legislatures, 18 percent of Congress and big-city mayors and 10 percent of state governors. Progress toward increasing women’s share of public offices has been slow and at times reversed."
Eighty-five countries have elected a female president or prime minister or vice or deputy. The U.S. has not.
As Liza Mundy writes for Politico, "Since the beginning of time–well, since American women got the vote in 1920–the slightest upward tick in the number of female lawmakers has inspired excited predictions that women politicians are on the verge of taking over. People always seem to think a small group of women is bigger and more influential than it is, maybe because women are often suspected of conspiring."
The media ran exultant stories when the total number of women in Congress reached 100 in 2014.
I did not cheer.
As Mundy points out, "When you consider that there are 535 voting members total, you are confronted with the fact that nearly a century after suffrage, women are not yet one-fifth of the body that purports to represent their views and interests. It’s not even a half-full, half-empty moment: It’s a 20 percent full, 80 percent empty moment."
Clinton made history when she became the first woman to get a presidential nomination by a major party. But the sexism she faced was astonishing. Her laugh was called a cackle, her cleavage was analyzed, protestors held up a banner reading "Iron my shirt!" and Republican buttons described her as a KFC special: "2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts . . . left wing." She was called bitchy and labeled a man hater–the latter illustrated by nutcrackers featuring her thighs. Pictures of Hillary as the Wicked Witch of the West appeared all over the Web.
If you doubt this charge, simply go on YouTube to the video produced by the Women’s Media Center titled "Sexism sells–but we’re not buying it." You’ll see the mainstream media in action.
This ugly stuff has discouraged young women from thinking about politics. They are running away as if from a tsunami. A major study shows that young men are twice as likely to have thought about running for office "many times," while women are 20 percent more likely than men to have never even thought of it.
"Girls Just Wanna Not Run" looked at college students, 18 to 25 years of age, in the first major study of young American women and politics. Done at American University in 2010, it found, "There is a substantial and persistent gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t," according to researchers Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox.
Young women’s resistance to politics is not a minor issue. Male dominance of politics is huge and growing. Across the United States, only 73 women hold statewide elected offices — less than a quarter of available positions. That percentage has been declining for 12 years, according to Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
And when women do run for office, they are older and run for lesser offices. Men are twice as likely as women to jump straight into high-profile races for a first-time run. Women are more inclined to see a local election as a necessary first step. An inexperienced male candidate will often choose a congressional seat for his first run; women are twice as likely to pick a local race, such as school board or local legislature.
The fear of "the despotism of the petticoat" has endured for a long time. There are millions and millions of women–and very many men–who would like to see it ripped to shreds. We haven’t come a long way, baby.
Maybe the time is now.
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