Here’s a tricky question for female voters: In the name of advancing women’s rights, should they vote for Hillary Clinton to “break the glass ceiling” and give the United States its first female president – despite their reservations about the candidate?
When former secretary of State Madeleine Albright and writer Gloria Steinem – two prominent feminists – indicated in February that a vote for Mrs. Clinton is a nod for feminism, they received a sharp backlash from women, especially younger ones.
A New York Times/CBS poll released Friday illustrates a similar trend: while a broad majority of voters are glad the milestone has been reached, half of them wish some other woman were poised to become the first female president.
Compared to other countries, the United States lags badly in the percentage of women in high office, ranking 33rd out of 49 high-income countries, according to a 2015 Pew Research poll.
The new poll, conducted among 1,770 adults from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, showed that Clinton is only supported by 52 percent of women likely to vote, and 45 percent of women think that electing her would be good for women. During her first presidential campaign, a NYT/CBS poll found that 70 percent of those surveyed saw her as a role model for women, compared to only 56 percent now.
But it doesn’t mean that voters are apathetic about problems faced by women. While acknowledging that much progress has been made to end sexism in the last two decades, most still state that sexual harassment at the workplace is a significant issue and three-quarters of women agree that women are still paid less than men for doing similar work.
“What I see that as a reflection of is that we have a done a good job on the awareness issue,” Teresa Boyer, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, told the New York Times. “The negative is that it still exists.”
Clinton has leveraged her identity as a woman in politics, highlighting her work on women and children’s issues. Ms. Albright's and Ms. Steinem’s remarks in February were supposed to help her, but they instead angered young women, many of whom chose Bernie Sanders over Clinton, arguing that his policies to address income inequality and college tuition made him a feminist candidate.
“The feminist era of Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Madeleine Albright has come to a close. Each heroic in her own way, these three icons of second-wave feminism have reached a pinnacle of sorts, along with the bittersweet recognition that they are sorely out of touch with today’s younger women,” wrote Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker in February. “The world they knew and helped change has produced a new generation no longer as concerned with the issues that animated their mothers and grandmothers.”
It also doesn’t help that Clinton has been called the “most disliked” major-party presidential nominee. Her tendency toward secrecy, as exemplified in her private server scandal, is seen as undermining her trustworthiness among voters.
But aside from reservations about her character, the missing perspective might be that young women are viewing a Clinton vote less on the basis of gender than on policies she's proposed.
Jennifer Lawless, professor at the American University department of government, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor that to evaluate whether a candidate advances the ideals of feminism, voters should look at the policies that they put forth more than the gender of the candidate. But to have a women in office, Professor Lawless says, would be powerfully symbolic, shattering perceived or real barriers of entry to women in politics.
“It’s still important in that the US can break that final glass ceiling to demonstrate that the political scene is fully open to men and women,” she says.
Clinton has a long history of advocating women's rights, working to reduce pay gaps and ensuring paid leave as well as supporting the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program as a first lady.
Her challenge might lie in trying to capture the young crowd, few of whom even identify as feminists. “The term 'feminism' is off-putting to a lot of people," Lawless notes.
Of course, with Sanders out of the race, female voters’ choices are more limited, especially in light of Donald Trump’s unpopularity among women. Among the survey respondents, 55 percent said he does not respect women and nearly a half said his presidency would be bad for women. Only 11 percent said electing him would be good for women.
As Mr. Trump recently debuted a paid family leave plan, his history of derogatory statements about women may hobble his efforts to win over women voters, as will changing cultural norms. The term “feminism” may not resonate strongly with younger women, but as a 2015 Pew Research poll suggests, over 70 percent of Americans expect to see a female president in their lifetimes.