Hillary Clinton’s presidential race has already contributed something inestimably important to young women: living proof that a woman does not have to run from a fight for fear of being disliked.
Years ago, I studied whether and how young women and men envisioned themselves as future occupants of powerful positions. “Imagine yourself as a powerful person, as a CEO, as a political leader, as a director of an important scientific research lab,” I instructed them, “and tell me what you would be like in that role. What you would you like about it? What would you dislike about it? Rate how positive and how possible that role would be for you.”
My respondents—university students who should have been poised for the possibility of holding such positions—provided a rich spectrum of answers to these questions. In general, they felt equal to the possibility of wielding power and influence in various roles and settings; they looked forward to having a voice and making a difference. Yes, they anticipated disadvantages—having to fire people, not having enough time for family, too much conflict with others, having to work very hard—but most were up for the challenge.
One role, however, generated more anxiety, hesitation, and even aversion than the others: that of political leader. Responses such as “I hate politics” or “nobody trusts politicians” were scattered throughout the sample. And there were significant gender differences. Even though several women listed their imagined role as President of the United States, the women, more than the men, said that the role of political leader was problematic for them. They were concerned that they would be disliked and distrusted, that it would be impossible to please everyone in a diverse constituency, that it would be difficult to accomplish their agenda. On the whole, women rated the political leader role as the least possible for them of all the powerful roles, and also as the least positive. These bright, promising young women were, to some extent, intimidated at the prospect of the storm of criticism, contempt, and dismissiveness that might impact them if they were to step into political leadership.
At the time, I thought that one contributor to young women’s reluctance to imagine themselves in politics was the lack of role models. Indeed, femininity and leadership were viewed as incongruous, and there were few examples of successful female political leadership to provide young women with a road map.
We now know that exposure to such role models can be a mixed bag: both intimidating young women and lowering their leadership aspirations (because they think they could never be as good as the role model), and empowering their actual leadership behavior and confidence when placed in stressful situations (because they are provided with inspiration and guidance by the role model). The complicated pattern is probably the result of the relative rarity of high-powered female role models. We do not, after all, spend a lot of time speculating about the impact of successful male leaders as role models for young men.
Enter Hillary Clinton.
Even back in the days when I was just formulating this research, long before she was running for president or before she was Secretary of State, Clinton’s name was one of the very few my students could come up with when I asked them to list powerful women (the other name that reliably came up was Oprah Winfrey). And maybe it was observing the negativity Clinton encountered, the names she was called, ways she was caricatured and diminished, that struck doubt into the hearts of young women considering forays into political leadership. But what has Clinton shown young women, and all the rest of us, during the intervening years—and particularly during this campaign?
That a determined woman need not wilt even in a scenario more nightmarish than any these young women could probably have imagined.
That a woman can be tough enough to keep her focus—and even her sense of humor—when being mocked, disparaged, and targeted with every nasty insult.
That a woman can remain strong, dignified, and implacable even when fully aware that her detractors are wearing T-shirts calling her vulgar names, screaming out in mob-style rallies that she should be locked up, or even executed. That being criticized for her appearance, disliked, even hated, is not the end of the world.
That a woman can be made of steel, that giving up is not an option when the goal is important. That she can take on a task that entails the risk of making big public mistakes, and that she can survive such mistakes.
That a woman does not have to be perfect—any more than a man has to be perfect—to be a good, credible, invigorating and effective leader.
In this bleak election campaign—in which we are bombarded with disparaging assertions about both candidates, in which we are buffeted every day by new examples of unpleasantness, in which we find that people we know and respect and even love disagree with us about issues that feel like life and death—the temptation toward disillusionment, even disengagement, is powerful. To say that the situation is dispiriting is an understatement.
Yet, one steady point of light is the example provided by this determined woman, metaphorically crawling through the mud on her belly with a knife in her teeth—refusing to give ground, to fall apart, or lose heart. We, too, should refuse to lose heart.
Despite the many attempts to strip the sense of joy and victory from the prospect of the first female U.S. president, Hillary Clinton’s path to leadership, the model of courage and perseverance she has provided for women considering leadership bids, is eminently worthy of awe and celebration. We should be inspired by her—and very, very grateful.