Will Hillary Clinton's Defeat Set Back Women in Politics?

Her high-profile loss could discourage women from running for office—but it might also motivate them to become more politically engaged.

People watch voting results at Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's election night event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center November 8, 2016 in New York City. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, she didn't just fail to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling in American politics. She lost to a man who accused her of cynically exploiting her gender for political gain, and who faced allegations of sexual assault. The legacy of her presidential run will undoubtedly be complex. Clinton may serve as a political role model for some young women, while others may feel alienated by her brand of liberal feminism. The contentious nature of the race and Clinton’s high-profile defeat could even discourage other women from running for elected office in their own right.

Research from Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University suggests that one reason why women are less likely than men to show interest in running for elected office is a tendency among women to doubt their qualifications. Watching Clinton lose to Trump, despite her extensive political experience, could reinforce those doubts.

“I think the defeat has the potential to set back female candidates’ emergence,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute. "Women are less likely to think they have thick enough skin to endure the rigors of the campaign trail, and to contend that voters will vote for them, donors will give to them, and the media will cover them fairly,” she said, adding that those doubts could be “reinforced by what they just saw in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and defeat.”

Even if the election doesn’t make women second guess their viability as candidates, it might make some wary of running for office out of an instinct for self-preservation. To get their anti-Clinton message across, some Trump supporters donned t-shirts with slogans like “Trump that bitch” and “Hillary sucks but not like Monica.” Trump, meanwhile, accused Clinton of playing the “woman card,” suggesting that the only reason she performed as well as she did was due to her gender. The attacks Clinton faced may prompt other women to think twice about a run for public office, especially if her experience convinces them the political arena is not a level playing field for men and women.

“The perception that an electoral campaign will mean more exposure to gender discrimination, and more experiences with having your private and familial life exposed to intense and often hostile scrutiny from the media and the public can raise the costs of running,” said Jennifer Piscopo, an Occidental College professor who researches gender and political recruitment. “If the likelihood of winning now seems even lower, women may reach a point where they believe the costs do not balance out the rewards.”

In the end, however, Clinton’s candidacy could still do more to help than hurt women’s advancement in politics despite ending in defeat. She didn’t win the White House, but she did make history as the first woman to receive a major U.S. political party’s presidential nomination. The fact that Clinton has amassed a considerable lead in the popular vote may also serve as a source of hope for women with political aspirations. At the very least, that suggests she was not repudiated by the electorate. Her candidacy might inspire other women to pick up where she left off.

“I don’t think Clinton’s loss is going to set women back,” said Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University whose research focuses on women in politics. “I think the conversations we have been having about women and gender before and after Clinton’s loss are lighting a fire in some women to do more.” She added: “That does not mean Trump’s election did not deal a big blow, but that it might anger some of us enough that it actually ends up motivating us to heighten awareness of discrimination and take action.”

Research from Christina Wolbrecht and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame suggests that young women are more likely to express interest in political activism when they see other women running for office. In particular, that seems to be true if female candidates are characterized as trailblazers and if their races prompt political conversations at home. Clinton’s candidacy was both historic and high-profile. As a result, it might set off a series of events that could lead young women to deepen their engagement in politics.

Of course, different women will react differently to Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Women who felt Clinton did not represent their values and did not want her to win the White House are likely to find her defeat energizing rather than demoralizing. Conservative women who campaigned for Trump instead may view the outcome of the election as an affirmation of their activism and even a reason to stay engaged in politics. There may also be women who did not support Clinton as a political candidate, but who nevertheless feel compelled to speak out against sexism and misogyny in the aftermath of the election.

Trump’s election may also motivate some women to become more involved in politics. That may be especially true if women feel that access to abortion and contraception is under threat from his administration. A “Women’s March on Washington” is scheduled to take place on January 21 following Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. According to a description of the event, the march is intended to send a message to “our new administration on their first day in office, and to the world, that women’s rights are human rights.”

The extent to which Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency dissuades or encourages other women to run for office, or engage in politics in other ways, may ultimately depend on the way her candidacy is mythologized. If history and popular culture remember Clinton as an overly-qualified woman who still couldn’t win, her candidacy may serve as a cautionary tale to other women. If she is remembered instead as resilient and determined, and a pioneer, her presidential run may prove more inspiring to women than anything else.

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