'Prez' Hillary, face of US women's hopes, fears

'Prez' Hillary, face of US women's hopes, fears

If Clinton wins, she would take office during a period of economic, demographic change for US women

'Prez' Hillary, face of US women's hopes, fears
The president would know what it is like to be pregnant. Top military leaders would answer to a female boss, when there has never even been a woman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Workplaces and home life could be transformed through expanded parental leave and pay equity. Or nothing could change. The symbolism would be supernova-level. The backlash could be withering.

On Thursday night, 240 years into an unbroken chain of all-male leadership, Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president. The country may be one hard-fought election away from a woman in charge, making a question that has always been abstract more concrete: How could having a woman as president alter the experience of being an American woman?

“Women will get fair wages,” said Tammy Keith, 53, a caseworker who lives in East New York and estimates she has been paid about $20,000 less than her male counterparts over the last 14 years.

The more boldly Clinton acted, the more empowered women would feel, said Marqui Wilcher, 25, a supervisor at a Pittsburgh call centre and a single mother. “Don’t go in there and cower down,” she said, as if speaking to the nominee.

The election of the first woman to the White House could revitalise stalled issues of workplace equality, said Jeanne Crain, 56, the chief executive of a bank in St Paul, Minnesota. “I think there are ways for me as a leader here to use this as a springboard — shame on me — in ways I haven’t done,” she said.

All week, cameras at the convention hall in Philadelphia have captured images of women weeping, hugging and cheering on Clinton. Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward.

A few said it would make no difference: “Oh my God, it’s a woman, blah blah blah,” said Kristin Shearer, 45, a Trump supporter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But most of the women interviewed — from their teens to their 90s, Democrats and Republicans, store clerks to executives — believed that a female presidency could somehow be a force in their own lives, even if they did not yet know how.

Some female leaders of other countries, like Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, accumulated power in sharp contrast to their countrywomen, who had very little. But if Clinton wins the presidency, she would take office during a period of economic and demographic transformation for American women, who are outnumbering men in college enrollment by ever widening margins, becoming primary breadwinners and heading their own households. State-mandated parental leave is slowly coming into place for the first time in US history. As commander in chief, one of Clinton’s tasks would be to finish the integration of women into combat roles in the US military.

But historic expectations can also set up deep disappointments. In the interviews, many women expressed pent-up wishes born of a slow-to-change culture and hard-lived personal experience. If Clinton is elected, those dreams may crash hard. Cracking an opening in a glass ceiling is not the same as dismantling it, said Marianne Cooper, a Stanford sociologist who was the lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”

“To really shatter the glass ceiling would mean she was upending the forces that are barriers for women,” she said. Those are “really difficult for any single individual from an underrepresented group to undo,” she added. “And in four years?”
As a candidate, Barack Obama often tried to lower expectations for what he would be able to achieve for African-Americans as president. But Clinton’s campaign agenda tries to lift hopes for women: Vast expansions in paid family and medical leave. An end – her website uses that word – to campus sexual assault. Limiting child care costs to 10% of a family’s income while giving providers raises at the same time. Abolishing the ban on federal funds for abortion.

But it is not yet entirely clear how a President Hillary Clinton might fund or enact some of her proposals. Congress is frozen, and politics requires compromises that often disappoint. American feminism is a raucous mishmash of pop culture heroines, reproductive rights advocates, anti-rape activists and others, glued together by little more than fervent online debate.

And there are a few unifying legacy organisations like the NAACP, the Urban League or even new groups like Black Lives Matter to push her agenda. She could easily find herself in a position similar to that Obama has faced on race, with some of her own calling her a disappointment at the same time as opponents allege she is a radical who is going way too far.

Her life has already been a canvas for debates about stay-at-home motherhood, marriage, ambition and the tendency of female leaders to be perceived as less likable. As the occupant of the Oval Office, the scrutiny could be even more relentless.

Harsher criticism

Some of the women interviewed took for granted that Clinton would be hit with nasty attacks, like the recent chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention. But they sounded even more worried that she would face harsher criticism than a male president for whatever large or small mistakes she makes.

“What do I fear? That her leadership would be seen as ‘dramatic’ or ‘bossy’ or ‘unlikable’ because society really struggles to accept women in power,” Kristina Dahl, 46, a director of a cancer support organisation in Seattle, said on Facebook.
The question is whether a President Hillary Clinton would be re-enacting familiar gender dynamics on a larger stage or shifting them, in part just by showing up to work each day.

“When a young woman walks into a classroom, a 15-year-old boy will think to himself, she could be president one day,” said Abby Wambach, 36, the soccer player and the author of a forthcoming memoir that describes her fight for equality as a female athlete, who has campaigned for Clinton.

Other women say that if she wins, they may change their own behaviour. The novelist Ann Patchett, 52, said that the election of a female president could persuade her to hand over more domestic chores to her husband. She is a best-selling author and bookstore owner, but a woman in the Oval Office would help her believe that her work is as important as her physician husband’s, she said.

Other women feel dawning possibility, but are not entirely sure what to expect. Nancy Lyons, 50, the chief executive of a design and technology agency in Minneapolis, came up with her own analogy to describe what the moment means for her.

Watching Clinton accept the nomination is like witnessing the space missions of her childhood, she said. Clinton is in a place no woman has ever been before, possibly about to go even further. She needs to execute precisely, to show great endurance and daring. Lyons is both cheering and dreading failure. “Hillary Clinton is like an astronaut now,” she said.