Originally Published 2015-03-09 00:00:00 Published on Mar 09, 2015
If Hillary Clinton runs for office in 2016, it seems that she will be campaigning for herself as herself - an exceptional professional, a controversial former secretary of state, and a woman.
Why gender would have more of a role in Clinton's 2016 Presidential campaign

When Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the President last time, her campaign struggled to address the matter of her gender in a balanced manner. She seemed conflicted between acknowledging her identity as a woman running for the most important office in the world and establishing her identity as a competent politician capable of handling the top job.

In her 2008 campaign, her gender was deemed to be a disadvantage by her advisors. It was believed that voters wouldn't put their faith in a "mother in the White House," especially in an increasingly volatile global environment.

Since then, however, Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly referred to the election of a female US President as the "highest and hardest glass ceiling"; her own potential to break it will most likely be central to her imminent 2016 presidential campaign.

For much of 2014, Mrs Clinton spoke about women's empowerment, not shying away from addressing the persistence of double standards for women in politics and other public spheres. She has often been quoted giving personal anecdotes from her own career as a lawyer and a politician, sharing feelings of being unfairly undermined by male colleagues. Moreover, Mrs Clinton has consistently been addressing issues like discrimination at the workplace, equal pay, abortion rights, paid family leave, child care and the role of women in society.

This marks a significantly different campaign preview for 2016 and a remarkable evolution since her 2008 presidential run. During her previous White House bid, Mrs Clinton's campaign focussed on her professional experience and glowing credentials, as it should have. But her identity as a woman, mother and grandmother was deliberately underplayed. It was believed that voters wanted someone "tough" who could be visualised as the leader of the dominant power in the world.

While Mrs Clinton's exceptional work profile speaks for itself, the idea of disassociating serious work from women (and especially women with families) now seems outdated. The decision to 'un-gender' Mrs Clinton's 2008 campaign serves as a classic example of the belief that women must appear more like men to seem suitable for high political offices. In retrospect, this decision is viewed as a "missed opportunity" that left the onus entirely on Barack Obama to become the icon of new-age politics.

According to scholars and political observers, this change signifies a larger transformation in American politics. Over the last few years, there has been greater focus on gender issues and women voters. This increased emphasis on the importance of gender considerations is likely to aid Mrs Clinton, or any other woman candidate for that matter, in battling unfair criticism that is often rooted in sexism.

Similarly, heightened gender sensitisation is likely to result in greater support for candidates who stand up for issues like equal pay and child care. Therefore, topics such as balancing work and family life, which would have been neglected a decade ago, are now being addressed by female as well as male politicians across party lines in the U.S.

The shift in perception can be partly credited to the unprecedented emergence of feminist media, made even more visible by the emergence of social media. Although the word "feminism" or women's issues in general continue to draw vicious backlash on social media, signalling a sharp resistance to the change; however there is also a growing visible support for the same. These developments make it a far more hospitable environment for gender sensitive social policies.

Crucially, this is paralleled by a change in demographics - more women are voting than men and there are higher numbers of unmarried women, working women and women heading big corporations - and, importantly, greater sensitisation in news media to detect and condemn misogyny. The number of female senators has also increased since 2008, albeit modestly, from 16 to 20.

It is a fact that careless comments by certain politicians on the topics of rape and abortion have only served in hurting their own popularity and have not gone unnoticed in either of the two major parties. At the June "Summit on Working Families", President Obama said that "there's no such thing as a women's issue." He stated that inadequate/expensive child day care, the lack of paid family leave and the gender wage differential are societal issues and not merely gender issues. Wary of the backlash that opposition to contraception use leads to, certain congressional Republican candidates, such as North Carolina Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, are now supporting the sale of over the counter contraception.

Perhaps this shift in perception is bound to happen in India as well. However, looking at the basic indicators, such as sex ratio, maternal mortality rates and education and employment rates, it seems that the shift may take a while. Cultural gender stereotypes do restrict certain opportunities for women. Discrimination in the public sphere is a huge contemporary issue for Indian women. Looking at the very top, at the parliamentary level, in the recent 16th Lok Sabha elections, only 61 women were elected, out of the total 543 seats. The percentage of women in parliament is 11.23 per cent, sad for a country with a population comprising 48.5 per cent women

As for Hillary Clinton, she continues to polarise opinions. However, it is a positive sign that she does not have to underplay her gender anymore in order to be seen as a serious contender. At the first Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for women in Santa Clara in February, Mrs Clinton said that gender equality is not just a politically correct statement anymore, but is significant in ensuring a country's economic, cultural and democratic progress. Equal pay, leadership and gender sensitive policy-making are likely to be prominent in Mrs Clinton's widely speculated 2016 campaign.

Mrs Clinton also stated in the same event in February that women need not succumb to the barriers of gender stereotyping, and must instead embrace leadership. She also cheekily added "You don't have to run for office… but if you do, more power to you."

If she runs for office in 2016, it seems that Hillary Clinton will be campaigning for herself as herself - an exceptional professional, a controversial former secretary of state, and a woman.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.