Rachel Marie O’Sullivan looks at the roles played by women in the current US Presidential election
The US Presidential campaign is currently dominating media coverage both within the United States and further afield. Attention is focused on the series of live debates involving both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but also the vice-presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. These debates have highlighted the divergent opinions of the candidates on matters of policy but also on their core, foundational beliefs. However, despite the many differences that exist between them a commonality can be seen. All are male. This gender bias in arguably the most important election in the world only serves to reflect and reinforce the lack of women in the upper echelons of world politics.
While there is a distinct lack of female presence in the 2012 campaign in 2008 women candidates were key players in the race to the White House. Hillary Clinton, originally the heir apparent of the democratic party, was narrowly beaten in the democratic primaries by the challenger Barack Obama. The Republican choice of Sarah Palin as their vice-presidential candidate offered the possibility of a woman occupying the position for the first time. Arguably Palin did little to improve the position of women in politics. Her abject failure in interviews provided the world with the stereotypical, archaic view of women politicians incapable of holding high office. She appeared out of her depth, lacking in any meaningful experience. However despite the failure of these women to succeed in their challenge, the 2008 campaign offered the public an opportunity to see women as potential political leaders. While changing the gender bias will not happen overnight, the involvement of women on a high profile stage slowly introduces the possibility of a woman occupying the presidency into the mindset of the public.
In this campaign, however, the women to the forefront appear to be the wives of the candidates. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have an influential role to play in the election. Unfortunately this role is confined within gender stereotypes. Both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney had high profile speaking positions at the Democratic and Republican Conventions. However, the function of their speeches was not to talk about policy initiatives or put forward their possible vision of the role of First Lady. Rather their speeches were attempts to humanise their husbands. Romney is generally considered to be lacking in personality and charisma, out of touch and aloof. Thus Ann Romney was brought out to tell their story, to create an image of the candidate that would appeal to voters. Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. However throughout her time in the White House she has been careful not to repeat the mistakes of Hillary Clinton by appearing to exert an influence over policy and decisions, rather confining her role to being the official, “Mom-in Chief.” Thus the key women in this campaign represent the traditional matriarchal role of women, supporting their husbands at the cost of sacrificing their own potential.
Although the position of women in politics is far from satisfactory it would be wrong to suggest that progress is not being made. Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice have both occupied the role of US Secretary of State in the last two administrations. For a country with such an influence on the foreign stage this is a role that comes with an enormous amount of power. However, it is important to note that this position is one of political appointment rather than direct election. Clinton herself is currently one of the most popular politicians in the US and speculation is rife that she will run for the Presidency in 2016. If she does then the US will have the opportunity to show that the perception of women has evolved and that they are now seen as political equals, capable of winning the trust and support of the electorate. In her concession speech in 2008 Hillary Clinton referred to the traditional glass ceiling that acts as a barrier to woman’s success. She said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” While it appears that 2012 was not that time, it is hoped that the path has been laid for the progression of women into high office and that subsequent elections will reveal an era of political equality where women are assessed not on the basis of their gender but on their capabilities.