What Could It Mean to Have a Female President?

Most models currently give Hillary Clinton a higher probability of winning the presidential election than Donald Trump, although she is by no means guaranteed a win. Regardless of the outcome, this is the closest the United States has ever gotten to having a female president, Secretary Clinton being the first presidential nominee of a major political party.

This is a huge moment, especially given that female representation in elected offices is low: less than 20 percent of the US House of Representatives, less than 25 percent of state legislators, and less than 12 percent of governors. However, a study by Amelia Showalter shows that women being elected to high offices can lead to increases in female representation in state legislatures. A female U.S. Senator being elected leads to a 2.88 percent increase in her state of female legislative representation over the next four years. In comparison, “the average rate of growth in female legislative representation in the last two decades has been about two-tenths of a percentage point per year.

While the effects of a female presidency in the United States can not be directly studied, it seems likely that a woman being elected to the even more prestigious and visible role of president could increase the rate of growth for female legislative representation by much more than 2.88 percentage points.

There are multiple possible mechanisms for this effect. One is that women might be disinclined to run for office because they believe that women are likely to be at a disadvantage due to their gender. The election of a high-profile woman could give other women confidence that the disadvantage is overcomeable, and could lead to more women running for office, and thus more women winning.

Another possible mechanism comes from a study in Indian villages: in places where there was a woman leader for over a decade, “voters tended to be less prejudiced about women leaders overall.” Female leadership could lead to more acceptance of women running for office, and thus a higher likelihood of voters choosing a female candidate.

There is also, however, fear that the election of a female president could lead to a backlash against women. When President Barack Obama was elected, researchers found that the election of the first Black president lead some white people to believe that racism had declined. This made them more critical of affirmative action and more likely to believe they now had a “moral license to express more critical attitudes about minorities.” With a first female president, perhaps women will end up in a more vulnerable position.

*Written by Erica Liao
Daniela Oliva

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