Clinton’s tenacity should be applauded

Posted 7th October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment

Hillary Clinton is the woman who won’t get out of the way. By remaining in the Democratic primary race, she is derided as pigheaded, stubborn and annoying. Her critics contend that she stands in the path of Barack Obama and his promise of change. And for what purpose? Her detractors claim that the contest is over, that the only beneficiary of her candidacy is John McCain.

For each premise in the case against Clinton, cogent arguments can be advanced in her favour. While her chances of winning the nomination are slim, the race is not over. Even if Clinton cannot win, she does Obama no damage by remaining in the race, as nothing Clinton throws at him will rival the ambush he can expect from the Republicans in November. Besides, staying in the race has allowed Obama to confront and experiment with political weaknesses he will need to address in the main race.

But let’s assume Clinton is guilty as charged. Even if she cannot win, even if she does Obama damage, her continued candidacy highlights elements of her character that should be commended, not condemned. By staying in the race, she models the guts it takes to compete and survive in the toughest of political contests.

Celebrating women of such character is critical to achieving gender parity in parliaments around the world. Historically, the barrier to the equal participation of women and men in elected office was believed to lie in the electorate. Voters, it was argued, struggled to see women as credible leaders. The answer, then, was to get more women into office so we would grow accustomed to women being in charge. Affirmative action was adopted, political systems were reformed, political-party rules amended. Slowly, things began to change.

The pay-offs have been substantial. While the war is far from won, research suggests that in elections in developed, Western countries, women are at no clear disadvantage because of their gender. Yet, the representation of women in elected office around the world remains low. Globally, women hold 17% of elected positions in national legislatures. Women make up 16% of the US Congress, and 30% of the Australian Parliament. Parity, clearly, is some way off.

But if the barrier is not at the ballot box, what is holding women back? The challenge, it seems, is getting equal numbers of men and women onto the ballot paper to begin with. Research seeking to understand why women won’t put their hands up for office consistently concludes that women are far less willing to subject themselves to the brutality of the electoral process.

Elections require candidates to push themselves forward to be evaluated, discussed, criticised, then formally judged. The mechanics of the process are confronting. Candidates must ask strangers for support, votes and money. They must knock on doors, present their case, debate their opponents, handle disapproval, argue and advocate. Some women would relish such an undertaking, but most would not. This is a problem, because these tasks are inherent in the competition between ideas and people that is our democratic system.

The solution to encouraging more women to make the leap onto the ballot paper goes beyond quotas, systems and technical fixes, and into the arena of perceptions and beliefs. One clear path is seeing other women take the plunge.

This is where Clinton comes in. History may be a harsh judge of her decision to remain this long in this race, for the spotlight will be fixed on that which can easily be measured: tallies of super-delegates, percentages in primaries. What will not be easily quantified is her impact on perceptions.

By gritting her teeth and staying put, Clinton models the kind of behaviour that we must learn to celebrate, not denigrate. From China to Colombia, Australia to Azerbaijan, women watch her remain resolved and tenacious in the scrap of the century. Her candidacy shows us while you may be hated and judged, while people will criticise your clothes, your hair, your family and your relationship with your husband, running for the highest elected office in the world is a contest that can be survived.

If you’re tempted to criticise Clinton, I’d invite you to consider what her continued candidacy says about her in a different light. She is a gritty, brave, determined woman. She is much more than a worthy rival in an epic contest. Every day she remains in this race, she redefines what it means for a woman to have guts. For that, we should applaud her.

Clare O’Neil is a Fulbright scholar who will graduate next month with a master’s (sic) in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Originally published May 31, 2008 in The Age

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