In wake of Trump win, European women ask: 'OK, what are we going to do?'

European women have broken a number of political glass ceilings. But Hillary Clinton's defeat has stung, and is being viewed as a threat to women's many gains across the Atlantic.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, smiles as she arrives at Downing Street in London, Britain Oct. 24, to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

European women have long pondered why the US has failed to pick a female president.

Sometimes the question carries with it a note of smugness. After all, Angela Merkel has been leading Germany for more than a decade, while Theresa May became British prime minister this summer, 37 years after Margaret Thatcher broke that barrier. Iceland just elected 30 women to its parliament of 63 members, far surpassing the US on gender representation.

Yet the defeat of Hillary Clinton, who pollsters had predicted would finally break the most impenetrable of glass ceilings, has stung European women and feminist movements more personally: it is being viewed as a threat to their own movements and gains.

“This is not just America’s problem,” stated the Women’s Equality Party in Britain.

That is sparking a continental “pro-lash,” as opposed to backlash, much like the one that US authors Maggie Ellis Chotas and Betsy Polk have noted in the US. Europeans are trying to talk about new ways to reach out and talk with one another, about issues from income and gender equality to truth-telling in politics and media. Those conversations are taking new urgency: Trump’s victory comes as Europe is seeing a resurgence of populism and conservatism that is also dividing societies here.

“If anything, we’re more committed than ever and more ready than ever to step up the fight for women’s rights and gender equality,” says Emily Usher Shrair, program manager at the European Women’s Lobby in Brussels.

Her organization, for example, just launched the “Glass Ceiling Emergency Fund” to “ensure that women’s leadership is given the funding it deserves and that there isn’t a sense of feeling disheartened that the glass ceiling wasn’t broken,” Ms. Shrair says. 

Meanwhile, Brita Fernandez Schmidt, the executive director of Women for Women International UK, says her staff sat down on Monday to a meeting and immediately asked, “OK, right, what are we going to do? This is not going to be business as usual.”

One immediate idea: a livestream Facebook panel featuring 25 men debating the subject of women’s empowerment. She is also chairing a panel on feminist foreign policy for the first Women's Equality Party Conference to be held next week in Manchester. She says she had assumed Clinton’s triumph would lead the discussion, but now they are forced to “reevaluate” to understand what the election results mean globally.

More women on stage

Clinton’s loss comes just as more women leaders have occupied prominent stages. While neither Ms. May nor Ms. Merkel have necessarily led on women’s empowerment, had Clinton won, she would have joined them at the table of the G7, a powerful symbol. Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome are today all led by women mayors, while Nicola Sturgeon is the first minister in Scotland. France’s Christine Lagarde heads the International Monetary Fund.

Jessica Smith, a PhD candidate in gender and political leadership at Birkbeck, University of London, says that the results in the US show how easily progress can be rolled back. 

“When we talk about the gap, the pay gap or gap in representation, saying a girl has to wait X amount of years before she is paid the same, we are always assuming the rate of growth will continue,” she says. “The scary thing about the US election, it emphasizes that these things can go backwards.” 

To be sure, Clinton’s loss was about far more than gender. With white, working-class women backing Trump, it underlined what was perhaps her bigger challenge: lack of confidence in, and even disgust for, mainstream politics.

“I think the debate about Hillary Clinton hasn’t been about being male or female, but rather being part of the establishment,” says Margreth Lünenborg, a professor at the Free University of Berlin who researches gender in the public sphere.

For some, it’s even being viewed as a learning moment for feminism itself.  Jan Fleischhauer, an editor and columnist at Germany’s Spiegel Online, says the appeal of Trump among "angry white women” – not just “angry white men” – shows a lack of broad appeal for a feminism he says focuses too heavily around cultural issues.

“I’ve always thought that feminism to some extent took the wrong direction because it caters to a very specific niche of women who are very highly educated,” he says. “These are issues that have a very high value to college students, but the moment you step out of a campus and go to a supermarket or a McDonald's and talk to people who work there, they have more pressing issues that they want to see addressed.”

What speaks loudest

Despite alienation and disenchantment felt by men and women on both sides of the Atlantic, the fact that Trump won amid blatant displays of sexism and misogyny is what represents the biggest risk for many – and speaks loudest to where women actually stand today.

“We are always talking about racism holding people back, but you can see there is sexism, too,” says Naomi Baxter, a young Brit who works in the tax office of Manchester.

And there is also a worrying acceptance by the larger society of sexism, says May Serrano, a feminist who runs the group “Imperfect Women” in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao. “I think [Trump’s victory] has brought to light many thoughts that continue to exist, but that you can’t say out loud because it has been politically incorrect,” she says.

Beyond the symbolism and rhetoric, many fear Trump’s victory could have more direct impacts on the fight for equality around the world, especially if American aid to worldwide and sexual reproductive health is cut under a Trump administration. 

Things could shift at home, too, as right-wing politics shifts the agenda. The governing Law and Justice party in Poland has sparked massive protests in efforts to clamp down on abortion. In the rhetoric of many other parties, more fixated on EU membership or immigration, many observers detect an anti-feminist agenda, says Ulrike Herwerth, from the German Women’s Council.

Chantal Louis, editor at EMMA, a German feminist magazine, asked in a recent article: “Why is it so important to look at this development in the US?” and wrote, “Firstly, because there are a lot of increasingly angry men in Germany.” 

Later, she says in an interview, “We fear that the victory of Donald Trump will change the climate of equal rights, also for us in Germany. We fear that men who reject equal rights of men and women will now feel like their claims are backed by popular demand.”

That could lead, for example, to less support for state-funded childcare options in Germany.

Ms. Schmidt says it is important to analyze what happened. “But we mustn’t do that at the cost of looking forward,” she says.

Trump’s election and Britain’s choice to leave the EU serve as a wake-up about the binary choices politics is offering.

“My question is whether, instead of focusing on one political candidate or party politics, it is more important to actually connect at the human level, with each of us taking the responsibility to talk about the issues that are close to us, instead of focusing on agendas,” Schmidt says.

She adds: “In envisioning an equal and just future … it is really important that we try and move away from the hatred, bitterness, and anger.”

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