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Refinery29: What “Madam President” Would Mean For Women In Politics & Beyond

June 10, 2016

Refinery29: What "Madam President" Would Mean For Women In Politics & Beyond

by Torey Van Oot 

Robin Swanson and her 4-year-old son were in the crowd watching Hillary Clinton speak in California when the former secretary of state mentioned her young granddaughter, Charlotte, and her second grandchild on the way. 

"He looked at me, his eyes wide as saucers and said, 'You mean grandmas can be president, too?'” Swanson recalled. "For him, that was the humanizing moment." 

For Swanson, a longtime Democratic consultant working in Sacramento, it was also another reminder of the many barriers Clinton is breaking by becoming the first female presumptive nominee of a major political party. Her son Logan, who eats his breakfast off a presidential place mat lined with the faces of 44 men, will never know a world in which a woman hasn't run for the White House. 

"I thought what was so cool about it is he was imagining things for his grandmas that maybe they haven't even imagined for themselves before," she said. "I'm excited for my son to live in a place where this is the norm."

When Clinton secured the delegates needed to become her party's presumptive nominee this week — the picks don't become official until the Democratic National Convention in July — she told supporters that we are "all standing under a glass ceiling."

And she wasn't the only one celebrating the feat as a major moment for women in politics and other positions of power. Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List, a political organization that backs pro-choice Democratic women running for office, called it a "stop-everything-you’re-doing-to-think-about-the-history-we-just-made big deal."

"She will break that glass ceiling once and for all. She will make history and change history," Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, told Refinery29 in a statement. The Maryland Democrat added that, for Clinton, "It’s not only about gender, it’s about having an agenda. She’s a champion for the underdog, for the little guy and little gal."

Clinton still needs to win the nomination in a vote on the convention floor — and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination, says he'll continue to fight until that final vote. 

If she does secure the nomination at the convention, her path to becoming the first female president is still marked with challenges, including trying to win over the millions of millennials and others who support Sanders, overcoming criticism surrounding controversies that have marked her own career and life, and defeating presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump at the polls in November. 

But many hope that even a primary victory — nearly a century after women gained the right to vote and eight years after Clinton conceded in her first presidential bid to then-Sen. Barack Obama — will usher in a new era in which women and girls believe anything is possible.

That includes running for office. Women represent just 20% of seats in Congress today, with similarly low numbers for state and local office. She Should Run, a nonpartisan group that encourages women of all political leanings to run for office, is hoping that Clinton's candidacy will change that. 

Erin Loos Cutraro, the cofounder and CEO of the group, said seeing Clinton break through "makes it seem possible and doable and helps women envision themselves in all roles." 

"Having more women in positions of power in elected office spurs interest up and down the ticket for other women and for young girls to consider it as a leadership path,” she told Refinery29. "It shows women what’s possible."

Yet even if Clinton makes history as the first female nominee and, possibly, president, she will find herself leading a country still plagued with significant institutional and societal barriers to gender equality. 

Women make up half the country's population, but are sorely underrepresented in the highest levels of leadership across sectors. On average, women make 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women of color fall even farther behind when it comes to representation and pay. And shortcomings in the areas of access to reproductive care and preventing sexual assault and violence continue to threaten livelihoods and health.

Clinton acknowledged the work that still needs to be done to level the playing field in her speech on Tuesday, telling supporters, "There are still ceilings to break — for women and men, for all of us." But she encouraged them to continue the fight.

"Barriers can come down. Justice and equality can win. Our history has moved in that direction — slowly at times, but unmistakably — thanks to generations of Americans who refused to give up or back down," she said. 

For Swanson, who first heard Clinton speak when she was an intern in Washington 20 years ago, watching that speech was the kind of thing that "makes the hair stand up on my head in a good way."

"She’s worked 10 times harder. She’s had to cross every threshold — delegates and superdelegates, winning a majority [of contests], being 3 million, now 4 million votes ahead," she said. "She had to check every single box, and that was never expected of any previous candidate." 

Now, Swanson said the task at hand for her and other Clinton backers is to persuade Sanders supporters to help Clinton check that last box in November. And if they're successful, she's looking forward to buying her son, Logan, a brand-new presidential place mat. 

"As soon as they make it, I’ll go. This one’s covered in applesauce, anyway," she said with a laugh. "So it might be time to buy a new one."