Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Significance of Clinton campaign overshadowed by bitterness of U.S. election

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters of her historic campaign during a rally at Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati on Monday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For years, Miriam Ganze has been knocking on doors for Democrats in upstate New York. Until this year – when, for the first time in its 240-year history, her country might elect a female president – no one shut the door in her face.

"People are much more cynical now and that's disturbing to me," Ms. Ganze, 71, a retired schoolteacher, says. She is especially disturbed by the crazy conspiracy theories she hears about her favoured candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Ms. Ganze would like to see a woman in the Oval Office – for herself, for her granddaughter. "I'd be very pleased to see the difference that would make," she says. "I'd like to see more women in the Senate and the House. I don't think the old boys' network has done us an awful lot of good."

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: As women, Freeland and Clinton forced to walk a fine emotional line

Read more: The double standard women face in politics and business

From the archives: The Hillary paradox: How American women are struggling over feminism and Clintonism

If Ms. Clinton becomes the 45th president of the United States, it will indeed be a historic victory. The question is, has the significance of that potential accomplishment been drowned out in a campaign that is unprecedented in the modern age for its bitterness, acrimony and sexism? As we watch one small step taken by a much-maligned woman, are we ignoring the great leap for womankind? And, after witnessing this election's carnage, will more women be encouraged to jump into the fray – or will they run away in horror?

Many observers think that baggage Ms. Clinton carries and the toxic nature of her opponent, Donald Trump, have obscured the real meaning of her candidacy and that this might be the reason her campaign has not been celebrated quite as joyously as the anticipation of the first black president in 2008.

The presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reflected on Ms. Clinton's historic campaign and how a win might affect her guardedness, in a New York Times interview this weekend: "My guess is that if she's able to win, knowing: 'I'm the first female president of this country,' that's such a huge thing. It's been totally overshadowed in this election. That would give her the confidence to say, 'I'm going to be like FDR and meet the press twice a week.'"

Very few women know from personal experience what it is like to navigate those treacherous political waters for the first time. Kim Campbell, Canada's first (and to date, only) female prime minister is one of them. Ms. Campbell has been a close observer of this campaign and an advocate for Ms. Clinton, whom she first met at a G7 conference when Bill Clinton was president. Ms. Campbell, too, thinks the significance of a female presidency has been overlooked and that's largely because many people are still not comfortable with the idea of a female president.

Story continues below advertisement

"When you're a non-prototypical leader, most of whom are woman, the problem is that people don't want to give you credit for your accomplishments," Ms. Campbell says. "They say, 'It's luck,' or whatever. So there was this narrative that she was a terrible candidate and she only had a hope of winning because Republicans had nominated such a terrible person. But the Republicans nominated a demagogue who was disconcertingly popular, and Hillary Clinton took him on in a very skillful way that the other candidates in the primaries did not or could not do."

Ms. Campbell is speaking from her office at the University of Alberta, where she is founding principal at the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. After her own short tenure as prime minister began and ended in 1993, she began studying how biased attitudes affect female leaders in democracies, as a way of understanding "things that perplexed me."

"If you're not what people expect, they always look for a way to justify their discomfort. They're never going to say, 'I guess I'm kind of sexist because I don't really believe a woman can do it.' They're going to say, 'No, I'm not sexist. I'd happily support a woman – just not this one.' Well, which one did you have in mind?"

Voices from the past

What America's early feminists had in mind, as they gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, was both simple and ambitious: That women should have the same rights as men, and one of those rights was political franchise.

"In entering upon the great work before us," the convention's Declaration of Sentiments read, "we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation and ridicule." They could not, perhaps, have anticipated it would take 72 years until American women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Story continues below advertisement

The first woman to run for president was Victoria Woodhull, in 1872, as candidate for the Equal Rights Party. A spiritualist, women's rights activist, newspaper publisher and advocate of free love, she was slandered by the newspapers as "Mrs. Satan."

In the past 144 years, a small number of women have thrown their hats in the presidential ring, including the Democrats' Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to sit in the House of Representatives, and, on the Republican side, Michele Bachmann and Carly Fiorina. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro made history as the first woman on a presidential ticket when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate.

Ms. Ferraro, who died in 2011, never made it to the White House, of course. In 2008, she gave an interview to Newsweek about the sexism that she experienced in that campaign, although she never felt she could talk about it at the time, because it would be seen like "whining." She didn't wear pants during the election, worrying that it would read as unfeminine and she heard from women who said their husbands wouldn't allow them to vote for her. Still, she thought that her campaign and others like it had disturbed the order of things, in the best possible way: "They are like tossing a pebble into a lake, because of all the ripples that go out from there."

"Every time a woman runs," Ms. Ferraro said, "women win."

Hopes for the future

It's hard to square that sentiment with the reality that is presented at a Donald Trump rally. In Tampa, last week, all the troubling aspects of the Republican candidate's campaign – a sexist cacophony that has become almost background noise because of its repetition – were on display.

Men and women together shouted, "Lock her up," when Ms. Clinton's name was mentioned. Men wore T-shirts saying "Trump that bitch," and worse. A girl of perhaps 11 stood in the crowd dressed in a Hillary Clinton mask and a prisoner's striped jumpsuit, while her mother stood next to her, smiling. In interviews, Mr. Trump's supporters referred to Ms. Clinton in language that would be beyond the pale in a normal campaign: "Killer" and "traitor" were only two of adjectives they used.

Politics is a bare-knuckle game, but it assumes a different level of bloodiness when women join the action. Ms. Clinton has been subjected to threats of violence by Mr. Trump's supporters, most recently at a Las Vegas rally when warm-up speaker and conservative radio host Wayne Allyn Root said that her candidacy should end "like Thelma and Louise." (Thelma and Louise drive off a cliff at the end, if you don't remember the film.) Female politicians are more likely to be subjected to abuse online and in a recent study of 55 women politicians around the world, 40 per cent said they'd received threats of physical harm directed at them or their children.

Julia Gillard, who became the first female prime minister of Australia in 2010, has spoken openly about the sexist blowback she received in her public life, including criticism of her appearance and being compared to a "barren cow." She recently gave a speech at a memorial for the murdered British MP Jo Cox, in which she encouraged young women to take up a life in politics, while warning that they would likely endure threats, abuse and worse. "Understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny," she said. "Prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it."

The question is, how many young women might be drawn to that life, after witnessing the poisonous U.S. election campaign? How many would believe they share Ms. Clinton's ability to go nine rounds, again and again, and still remain standing?

"I've seen some positivity in this campaign," says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics. "Yes, there's been all this hatred and misogyny, but then there's also been a backlash to it, particularly noticeable among men who say, 'Wait, that's not me. That's not how I think.' And that's a point of progress."

What young women might take away from this campaign is a sense that a support network exists, even when things get really tough: "They've seen people stand up for [Ms. Clinton], so they might think: 'If someone comes after me, people will stand up for me, not just my supporters, but from across the aisle, too. I might have to take the crap, but I won't have to take it alone,'" Prof. Dittmar says.

According to Kim Campbell, the mere presence of a woman in the White House would encourage other women, because the clubhouse would look like it was open to all. "We all have attitudes based on the landscape from which we derive our sense of how the world works. In a lot of places that landscape didn't include women. But when we have a woman in that place, she will change the landscape. She will recalibrate our sense of who can do that job."

Ms. Clinton has been loath to play what Mr. Trump mockingly calls "the women's card," but there is no doubt that if she wins, it is female voters she will have to thank for it. She is leading Mr. Trump by a large margin among women (just how large will depend on which poll you consult). Women in America tend to lean Democrat and more of them show up at the polls: Some 10 million more women than men voted in the 2012 election, a boon to Barack Obama.

As well, Ms. Clinton is running on a more progressive platform than she did in the presidential primaries of 2008. Her family-friendly and education-friendly policies – paid parental leave, debt-free college – are seen as particularly enticing to female voters. And there is no underestimating her support for Planned Parenthood and women's reproductive freedom, an issue on which she was considered lukewarm in 2008.

And while she may not make overt reference to her history-making candidacy, she throws out enough hints to keep her feminist base happy. "I think we were all fist-pumping when she wore white at the third debate," Prof. Dittmar says. "White is the colour associated with suffragettes, and Geraldine Ferraro wore white when she accepted the vice-presidential nomination. It was definitely a wink at history."

It is Ms. Clinton's own history that is the deal-breaker for many voters, male and female. They believe she is corrupt, ambitious for ambition's sake, untrustworthy. If she is to win, she'll have to convince millions of voters to support her, both old and young.

What is less well-documented is the enthusiasm for Ms. Clinton – not just for a woman in the White House, but for this woman in the White House. However, once you look past familiar narratives of this campaign, that enthusiasm isn't hard to find.

The website offers the testimony of women who were born before the 19th Amendment and have lived long enough to cast their ballot for a female president. They are women such as Stellajoe Staebler, who writes: "This vote means that the population of the U.S. has not gone completely berserk. I am grateful that at the age of 100 I'm still able to vote and that there is a highly qualified woman to vote for. I have imagined that this would happen one day."

It will be historic indeed if the country looks beyond centuries of suspicion about women's ability to lead and elects Hillary Clinton. At this stage, that's still a big if. On Nov. 9, the women of America might have to go back to waiting, as they have since the republic began – perhaps a bit less patiently this time.


If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, she joins a formidable group of female political and economic leaders trying to steer countries, regional blocs and global events. Their agendas are often not without obstacles or turmoil.

Angela Merkel

The German Chancellor is a stalwart of European politics. But next year, she faces a big test when the country holds parliamentary elections. There is widespread dissatisfaction with Ms. Merkel's refugee policies.

Theresa May

The British Prime Minister has one massive issue in her in-tray: Brexit. She has promised that "Brexit means Brexit." In other words, no wriggling out of the European Union exit. She faces voters in 2020.

Christine Lagarde

The former French finance minister became managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011. Abuse of authority allegations from her time in French politics followed her to the IMF.

Janet Yellen

The powerful Federal Reserve Chair is the subject of the unending parlour game: trying to predict when interest rates will rise. But Ms. Yellen's every word is closely parsed – and they easily can move markets.

Park Geun-hye

South Korea's first female president presides over Asia's fourth-largest economy and home to Samsung, LG and Hyundai. But one of the original Asian Tiger economies is now part of the slow-growth club. On top of that, Ms. Park is embroiled in a controversy over her friendship with the daughter of a cult leader.

Michelle Bachelet

The Chilean leader made history in 2006 as the country's first female president, and in 2014, she returned for a second term on a platform of reducing income inequality and decriminalizing abortion.

– Affan Chowdhry

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at