What makes Americans attracted to Presidents from Mars rather than Venus and what will it take for a woman to break through America’s most exclusive glass ceiling?

Every year in Luton Sixth Form College the Politics department holds the Politics Prize competition. Last year Adam Deacon won the prize with his article on North Korea. This year Sophy Lelliot won with her excellent piece on the glass women that American females face on the quest for political power which you can read below.


ABOVE: Sophy Lelliot receiving her Politics Prize from the principal, Chris Nicholls.

Following a close primary campaign in 2008, Barack Obama won sufficient delegates in the Democratic Party primaries to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton and receive the presidential nomination. In 2009, he then defeated Republican nominee John McCain in the US presidential election to become the first African-American president of the US. In 2012 he defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney to retain the presidency. However with Obama’s historic two terms entering there twilight, preliminary whispers about the race for the White House in 2016 have begun to build up and political analysts are indicating that perhaps the 2016 presidency will create history once again with Hillary Clinton the early front-runner for the 2016 Democratic Party nomination and Presidency of the United States of America which would make her the first female to hold the top office and put the US on course to join nations such as the UK, Germany, Brazil and Argentina as democracies that have had a woman as their top leader.

However this begs the question, why has the USA – arguably the world’s most democratically advanced nation – not yet seen a female in the top job? But more importantly, what will it take to put a woman in the Oval Office, behind the desk that is, not sweeping the floors?

In general, the figures showing female participation in top-level politics in the USA are stark. Alarmingly, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, America now ranks ninety-eighth in the world in terms of the percentage of women in the national legislature, which is even lower than their 1998 position of fifty-ninth. Embarrassingly this leaves them behind Kenya and Indonesia and even below Saudi Arabia in the table; the only nation in the world which prohibits women from driving, and who have been criticised for their stance by many western nations including the USA. Considering this poor record of women in the legislature, does this not undermine America’s credibility and smack of hypocrisy?

Women currently hold just 18.5 percent of the 535 seats in the 113th US Congress, 20 percent of the 100 seats in the Senate and 18.2 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. Currently in the US only five Governors are women and, startlingly, twenty-four states have never had a female Governor. In addition the percentage of women holding state-wide and state legislative offices is under 25 percent, barely higher than in 1993. At local level only twelve of America’s 100 largest cities have female Mayors. The harsh reality is that at the current rate of progress, “women won’t achieve fair representation on par with their male counterparts for nearly 500 years,” according to Cynthia Terrell, chair of Fair Vote’s “Representation 2020” project, which has recently released a new study on women’s representation. Although even this this is a massive improvement considering women were not granted the right to vote until 1920. Since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled and the presence of women within Congress has gradually increased since 1920, with the 113th Congress, serving from 2013-2015, including a record 20 female Senators and 77 female representatives. However, this is not where the crux of the problem lies; that comes in the form of women’s representation in leadership roles being extremely low, as highlighted by there having been only five woman state Senate Presidents and three state House Speakers.

Compare this with the fact that women now make up a majority of the US population at 51 percent, then then is a serious inequality between the proportion of society which they make up and the proportion of high-ranking political seats held. However this also uncovers another problem, surely this must mean that women don’t vote for women?


It is clear that women have begun to break through political barriers in the US; three women have served as Secretary of State, four have been Supreme Court justices and there has even been, in Nancy Pelosi, a female Speaker of the House of Representatives. However the largest, most important barrier remains unbroken. No woman has been elected President, or Vice President, for that matter.

If comparisons are made between the USA and the rest of the world, its record on females in leadership roles is even poorer, as more than 20 countries currently have a woman holding office as the head of a national government.

Foreign female national leaders have included Canada’s Kim Campbell, the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, Israel’s Golda Meir and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to name but a few. Even Pakistan and Turkey, nations often viewed by the rest of the world as particularly male-dominated and lacking in democracy have had female prime ministers. Therefore, the United States, a country which vehemently promotes the rights of women and girls around the world, is itself at fault for having only male presidents.

So why are Americans attracted to leaders from Mars, over those from Venus, as John Gray would put it? Clinton herself acknowledged that her supporters had made 18 million cracks, but what exactly will it take for a woman to break through America’s largest, most elusive glass ceiling?

There is nothing within the US constitution that requires a presidential candidate to be male.

The only to conditions are that “the person must be a natural-born citizen of the United States and must have been a permanent resident of the United States of America for at least 14 years. Additionally, a candidate must not have been impeached by the Senate, and not have participated in a rebellion against the United States. Each candidate must be at least 35 years of age.” Yet, despite there being no official document forbidding women to challenge for the presidency, the USA remains one of the few democracies never to have elected a female leader.

But, if the problem does not lie in any conditions actively preventing women from getting involved at the top-level of politics, then where should we look?

Research conducted by representation experts such as Professor Wilma Rule has shown that one of the main reasons for female candidates’ success in democratic nations is the use of proportional representation electoral systems. This system uses multi-seat districts, rather than single-seat districts, (as used in elections to US Congress) where political parties win seats in proportion to their share of the votes cast. For example if a political party wins 20 percent of the vote in a ten-seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none under a single-party system; 40 percent of the vote would win four seats, etc.

This allows minority parties a greater chance of winning seats and faced with real competition, major parties look to nominate candidates that broaden their appeal to voters, including a lot more women. For example, the German Green Party has never won more than 11 percent of the national vote, yet for three decades it has consistently won seats and promoted women’s leadership, by having a 50-50 rule for female/male candidates, thus provoking other major parties to nominate more women.

So how important is the electoral system to women’s success in the political landscape? A real-world test is provided by comparing nations that use proportional representation electoral systems to those that use US-style one-seat districts to elect their national legislatures. The result? In Germany for instance, women win a lot more seats chosen by the proportional representation method than in those chosen in one-seat districts. In fact they win twice as many seats!

Generally American women also do better in multi-seat districts, even if a proportional representation electoral system isn’t used. As a FairVote (they provide information to the public on the impact of voting systems) report shows, women hold an average of 31 percent of state legislative seats elected in multi-seat districts, compared to just 23 percent of seats elected in single-seat districts. For instance, Vermont’s state legislature consists of 40.6 percent women, all elected in districts ranging from one to six legislators elected per district. By using two-seat districts even a staunchly conservative state like Arizona is comprised of 35.6 percent women in the state house.

The US Constitution does not require the use of single-seat districts, so switching to a proportional election method would only need changes in the applicable laws. The federal law passed by Congress in 1967 making single-seat districts for House races mandatory, could be altered again by Congress. State legislatures and local governments could also adopt similar systems through changing state and local laws. This may give women a better chance of getting that all important grip on the greasy pole.

Perhaps then, as mentioned above when comparing the USA with Germany, it is a ‘positive quota’ or ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of women which would entail that females must make up a certain number or percentage of the members of a body, whether it is a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly, a committee, or a government. A quota system would shift the burden of recruitment away from individual woman and on to those who are responsible for controlling the recruitment process. The core ideal behind this system is to recruit women into political positions. However this throws up all kinds of potential for criticism, such as that which was directed towards Sarah Palin; are these just token women rather than competent women?

So, if changing the electoral system or introducing a quota are a bit too heavy in order to increase female participation in US politics, then are there little social tweaks which could be made to empower females?

The media is also responsible for playing a damaging role in making women seem less credible candidates as leaders than their male counterparts. This perception is reflected in various surveys carried out in the USA, which showed that roughly two-thirds of females who classified themselves as potential candidates for state legislatures, believed that both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were subjected to unfair and sexist media coverage. Furthermore, the majority of female respondents believed that, during campaigns, too much attention was paid to Clinton’s and Palin’s physical appearance. In terms of perceptions of bias, around half of the female potential candidates believed that Sarah Palin faced gender bias from voters, whilst more than 80 percent believed the same to be true of Hillary Clinton.

Political pundits ridiculed Clinton’s laugh, her voice, and her pantsuits. However, ultimately it wasn’t the press who defeated her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, but, many would argue, it was that her campaign was often at war with itself, particularly over whether she should apologise for voting in favour of the Iraq war. Even more significantly she had to contend with the political baggage of her husband Bill, the former president, who polarised American voters, sparking feelings of great admiration in many but considerable anxieties in others.

Although the media does trivialize female candidates, and this certainly contributes to the lack of women in leadership roles in the US, it is not exclusively responsible for this failure. In fact it could be argued that the media mostly reflects the political culture and traditions of the US as whole and it is here that we should look for answers to this elusive question. Indeed there are deep rooted gender expectations which have filtered through to politics. Throughout most of US history, men have been expected to be strong and protective while women are seen as nurturing caretakers of their husbands, their homes, and their children. What is more there is a belief that politics is a dirty world and therefore no place for a woman. This prejudice is still retained by some Americans thus hindering a female charge for the presidency.

“The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.” – Grover Cleveland; the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. This quotation indicates another social obstacle to women gaining access to the top job. Religion plays a large role in the presidential race and many believe that it may have been Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and the beliefs which he held as a result of that, which tipped the balance of the last presidential election in Obama’s favour. This conservatism may make it extremely difficult for women to receive a presidential nomination, particularly from the Republican Party.

Many political commentators believe that this is compounded by the idea of American exceptionalism and militarism. During the Cold War, and particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Americans viewed themselves as the undisputed “leaders of the free world.” This led many US citizens to assume that the President should have some kind of military experience. This generates a “warrior” image of leadership, and is extremely gendered. For example, 31 US Presidents have had some sort of military experience.

However despite all of this it is in fact the perception of women themselves which appears to be the main stumbling block in seeing women rise to the top of the pile. The problem is not just how the wider American public perceive women in politics but how these women themselves view the political landscape. More than half the women involved in politics who took part in a ‘Gallup’ sample “do not believe that women who run for office fare as well as their male counterparts.” Seven out of ten of these women doubt that female candidates raise as much money as men from similar backgrounds.

The Citizen Political Ambition Study found that when someone tells them that they should run for office, men and women were equally likely to consider it. However, women were far less likely to be told to run in the first place, even by their own husbands. It seems that women lack the same self-belief of their male counterparts. So, perhaps then, this suggests that the solution is actually far simpler than many would believe. Tell women to run.

Even, Michelle Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman of Minnesota and former Presidential hopeful, stated in a 2014 interview that “America was not ready for a female President.” However it must be noted that, on behalf of her party, she might have been trying to discourage Clinton from gaining the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, as currently Clinton is regarded as the strongest candidate for the 2016 scrap for the White House.

An issue with encouraging women to believe in themselves and aim for the top job is that there are not enough females in high ranking political positions from which the majority of US Presidents are drawn or even in the boardroom in high-profile US businesses for women to look to for inspiration.

For instance fourteen Presidents served as Vice President prior to moving up to the White House, yet there has never been a female Vice President. In fact only two women have ever received a major party nomination; Geraldine Ferraro in the 1984 election for the Democratic Party and Sarah Palin in the 2008 election for the Republican Party.

16 Presidents had previously held the post of U.S. Senators. A total of just 44 women have served in the U.S. Senate, however some states remain which have never elected any. There are a record number of women serving in the Senate right now with the current figure standing at 20. That means it’s the best it have ever been for women in the US Senate; yet 80% of Senators are still men.

The problem is reflected similarly in US big business which remains a male dominated world. In 2013, 922 board seats were held by women, compared to 4,524 seats held by men. That means that women held just 16.9% of these influential positions despite making up nearly 50 percent of the American workforce. As the self-belief studies above indicate women will never be prepared to challenge for the top positions in both politics and in the boardroom unless they see enough encouragement around them.

Despite all the various issues examined here, it seems that the most pressing problem is getting that first women across the line, and then many more will see that as a sign that it is possible for women to climb to the very top of the ladder. If Americans can get one women in the top job then most of the hard work is done, as many more female hopefuls will follow after.

Happily, it does seem that the attitude of the American public, towards the idea of welcoming in a female President in 2016, is becoming far more favourable. Polls have consistently shown that over 90 percent of Americans state they “would vote for a female candidate for President.”

Variations on the question do though provide different answers. For instance, Americans are more likely to vote for a women who is ‘qualified for the position’, although the definition of ‘qualified’ is vague and broad. ‘Gallup’ also conducted a poll asking a slightly different question: ‘Whether respondents thought Americans were ready to elect a woman as president.’ Only 61 percent said yes. This shows the fundamental difference between the ideal and what some conservative Americans are truly ready for.

It does seem though that the view of the majority of Americans is becoming that Presidents don’t have to be from Mars or Venus, as long they’re from Earth and the United States. The crucial point is that everyone should be given a chance. It does seem increasingly likely that in 2016, a woman may finally occupy the White House, and not simply in the capacity of running the kitchens. We should never underestimate women. As Eleanor Roosevelt once claimed; “A woman is like a tea bag – You don’t know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.”


Sophy Lelliot, A2 Politics Student.


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