Hillary Clinton was confidently predicted to ‘crack the country’s highest glass ceiling once and for all.’ In Rochester, New York women queued up to put tokens on the grave of Susan B. Anthony, the nineteenth century suffragist and architect of the 19th amendment to the US constitution which gave federal voting rights to woman in 1920 (they had been voting in territories and states since 1869).
Well, Tuesday’s election certainly saw a breakthrough but it wasn’t for Clinton and it wasn’t based on gender, despite confident predictions that women or men were going to swing the vote for either candidate
If gender was going to be the determining factor, this was the election where it should happen. Clinton was a respectable public servant, wife and mother. Trump was the epitome of swaggering masculinity, bragging in an Access Hollywood bus of the most gross expressions of gendered bad behaviour. No one, male or female, minimised this. But the expectation that it would create a political earthquake and shame him out of the race was utterly wrong. In fact, his ability to ride through and surmount this and other proofs of his personal failings made him a stronger candidate. This should have been no surprise. In the 1990s when moralists were out for Bill Clinton’s blood because of his failings as a husband, his poll ratings stayed high. This was a president under whom there was prosperity at home and peace abroad, voters male and female could tell the difference between personal behaviour and politics.
It was not a new lesson: Grover Cleveland in the unforgiving nineteenth century produced a child out of wedlock while in the White House but still went on to win a second term – and, indeed, to be the only president in history to win two non-consecutive terms, despite his opponents’ jeers of ‘Ma, ma, where’s my pa?’
The campaign for women’s votes tells us the paradoxical truth that in politics, gender doesn’t matter. In 1893 Colorado’s men voted for women’s suffrage in a referendum despite the predicted crisis of masculinity warned of by the opponents of ‘petticoat government.’ Disaster failed to arrive, but neither did the period of harmony and social justice promised by the proponents of women’s voting. A taste of the future was remarked on by Federal Judge Moses Hallett: ‘the presence of women at the polls has only augmented the total votes, it has worked no radical changes. It has produced no special reforms, and it has had no particularly purifying effect on politics.’ A woman reporter from the San Francisco Examiner who went to Colorado to report on the supposedly monumental changes wrought by this gender revolution lamented, ‘we women have found out that our politics are just as corrupt as men’s politics, they are just a little bit trickier if anything.’
This last comment brings to mind the anonymous Republican grandee’s comment on Hillary Clinton: ‘Whoever you are, she’s smarter than you, and meaner than you.’ That’s a comment about a person, not about gender. What was true of women’s voting has also been true of women’s participation in politics. Men and women politicians have identically peddled the same rhetoric, and risen and fallen by it. Hillary Clinton did not fail because she was too radically female, but because she was too conventionally part of a political establishment that had become despised.
What we saw in the electoral contest, despite the media’s incessant personalisation of the contest, was a genuine battle of priorities in which Hillary Clinton the experienced politician lost every time. Trump talked about fears over immigration, the broken economy, a putrid political class and America’s over-engagement in military adventures abroad. Clinton offered more of the same. Women voted on the issues, and non-college educated women, whose jobs are most threatened by globalisation (as are those of non-college educated men), notably supported Trump. There is ample room to say voters were misled and Trump cannot deliver what he promised, but that would apply to male and female voters. They made their choices on the issues put before them.
Cracking glass ceilings is an attractive goal for elite women, but if they want to bring less privileged women (and men) along to accomplish this task, they need to address their real concerns.