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A post by Nicola Alroe

I was ready.

I acquired a “Stronger Together” button. I devoured Hard Choices. I vetted prospective partners on the basis of their for-or-against Hillary status. For almost two years, I vociferously defended Hillary in political debates against every Bernie Bro I met on campus. I let myself believe – as did a great a many others – that Hillary’s glittering vision for America was a fait accompli.

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And then on the 8th of November, the unthinkable happened. I watched as the quivering needle of the New York Times’ election forecast slipped further away from a Clinton victory, at first tentatively, but ultimately decisively. Hillary’s defeat was irreconcilable with some of my most basic beliefs about the world: I accepted that sexism operated as an insidious and omnipresent structural force, but also believed that objective merit could overcome and win the day - particularly where that merit was so blatantly obvious. What I felt after her election loss was not detached disappointment, but a deep and personal sense of loss.

This was the context in which I, bruised and battered, attended the Sydney Ideas event ‘That’s What She Said’. Billed as a discussion of the way forward for women in politics in both Australia and the United States, the event was to be steered by Geraldine Doogue of Radio National fame and Anna Greenberg, a Democratic Party pollster extraordinaire. I hoped that the event might help me find a way to re-engage with coverage of American politics, and to justify my injured but continued faith in the essential meritocracy of democratic processes. I was also interested to hear Anna’s insights into the heights of the mercurial world of electoral polling.

I was not disappointed. Discussion began on the subject of the moment – the United States Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Wisconsin gerrymandering case. The phenomenon of gerrymandering is a longstanding one: the term was coined in 1812 after the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, drew an electoral district in the shape of a salamander to optimise his party’s prospects of retaining the district. Since then, the phenomenon has become endemic in American politics. Grouping people whose voting patterns can be accurately predicted together into a district, however precariously the boundary line is drawn, enables parties to allocate campaign efforts and spending more efficiently. However, the practice abrades fundamental democratic principles such as the notion of “one vote one value” by devaluing the vote of those who vote differently to the majority in a gerrymandered district. Concern about the practice is currently heightened in light of the fact that in the 2016 Presidential election Clinton garnered a popular majority of 4 million votes, but failed to win enough electoral college votes.

But onto the main event - Clinton’s failed bid for the Presidency. Anna highlighted two things. First, the way in which the result highlighted the prevalence of the “two Americas”: the cosmopolitan and globalist urban centres, and the conservative rural hinterland. Second, Anna appeared genuinely frustrated with the Clinton campaign’s refusal to holistically assess the shortcomings of their campaign. Certainly, sexism played a role: Anna recounted the sexist comments of Democrats in focus group meetings:

“I don’t want my grandma to be President”

“At least she had experience in the White House as first lady”

Moreover, age works against women in a way it does not against men. An older woman is seen as a grandma, an older man is seen as a seasoned statesman. Nonetheless, simply blaming the outcome on sexism without acknowledging the other failings of the Clinton campaign strategy (such as the failure to capture both Americas) is unproductive.

From there the conversation began to turn towards the future. All things being equal (with equal campaign financing and support, in a competitive district) women win elections as often as men. Why, then, are there still fewer women in politics? Quite simply, women fail to self-nominate for positions. Anna spoke of worthy female candidates needing to be asked two or even three times before agreeing to run. Even then, women with impressive public service, private sector or not-for-profit resumes would question whether they were qualified to run for or hold public office. In Anna’s experience, men with lesser and narrower experience never expressed such sentiments.

The solution is empowering bodies – both within and outside the party – to recruit women to run for public office. To this end, Anna spoke at length about the work done by Emily’s List – an organisation that provides campaign funding and training to Democrat, pro-choice women looking to run for public office at every level from Congress to the local school board. Since the 2016 election, 12 thousand women have approached Emily’s List and expressed a desire to run for public office. The efforts of the Democrat party to recruit female candidates can be contrasted against those of the Republican party, who as yet have no equivalent to Emily’s List. This failing and the underrepresentation of women can be seen at every level of the Republic party, including in Trump’s Cabinet.

I’m not over the election result yet. However, after hearing Anna Greenberg speak, I do have a clearer picture of the way forward. One can only hope that amongst the thousands of women spurred to action in the wake of the 2016 election, one of them will finally be able to break the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” that Hillary cracked, but which ultimately eluded her.

Listen to the podcast from the event:


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