The nomination of Hillary Clinton for president is a penultimate historic moment. Her election, like that of Barack Obama, would be historic–at least for this country. (India installed a woman head of government 50 years ago, Israel did 47 years ago, and the U.K. did 37 years ago.) You don’t need a sociologist to tell you that women’s situations have changed dramatically in the last few decades.
Just as the election of Barack Obama in 2008 highlighted the vast advances of blacks in America but did not usher in a “post-racial” or “post-racism” era, so the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016 would highlight the vast advances of women in America but will not end the tensions about women’s proper roles. Almost all Americans today say that they would vote for a woman for president, but many of them retain reservations about the gender equality such a vote implies.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Gallup Poll asked Americans “If the party whose candidate you most often support nominated a woman for president of the United States, would you vote for her if she seemed best qualified for the job?,” fewer than 60 percent said “yes.” That is, about 4 in 10 thought that being female disqualified a candidate. Since 1972, the General Social Survey has asked a variant of the same question: “If your party nominated a woman for President, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?” The blue dots and line in the graph below show the trend since then: from under 80 percent “yes” in the 1970s to about 95 percent “yes” now.
Of course, we must discount the high percentage somewhat (as we do for a similar question about a black president). As the ideology of gender equality has spread, some people feel they ought to say yes (aka “political correctness”). Nonetheless, this is a striking change in the public acceptance of a woman president, from about 50 to nearly 100 percent in a couple of generations.
Yet responses to other, related questions suggest that a noteworthy minority of Americans may say that they’d vote for a qualified woman but still harbor reservations about women stepping into roles such as president.
The gray dots and lines in the graph track the trend in the percentage of respondents who disagree with the statement, “Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.” That percentage has risen sharply, but it is at about 80 percent, compared to the 95 percent who say they would vote for a woman for president–a 15-point gap.
The orange dots and lines track the trend in the percentage who disagree with the statement “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Disagreement with this notion of “separate spheres” for each gender has risen to almost 70 percent, but it is still 25 points below the percentage saying they would vote for a woman for president.
That means that, though a minority, millions of Americans who say they would vote for a woman president also admit to qualms about women stepping out into the public arena. Who are these people? A brief examination of the “Yes, but…” respondents shows that they disproportionately tend to be not so much men, but older, less educated, Hispanic, and Republican.
On the surface then, almost all Americans say that they are ready to vote for a “qualified” woman for president. Setting aside whether they think that Clinton is that “qualified” woman, many still harbor deeper doubts about women in politics. As Obama had to contend with unspoken reservations concerning race and the presidency, so, too, Clinton faces unspoken reservations concerning gender and the presidency.