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Hamilton on Foreign Policy #247: The U.S. will elect a woman president

Lee Hamilton on Foreign Policy Jun 11, 2024
Lee H. Hamilton
Lee H. Hamilton

Claudia Sheinbaum made history this month when she became the first woman elected president of Mexico. What will it take for a woman to become president of the United States?

I think we will eventually elect a woman president. There is no shortage of highly qualified women in politics. Women have shown, time after time, that they can handle the tasks of governing. Most Americans say a woman president could do as well as, if not better than, a man.

We came very close, obviously, in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost to Donald Trump because of our antiquated Electoral College system.

But there is no question that women continue to face challenges in politics. Some people still hold the stereotype that only men can be strong leaders. Women are judged differently on their appearance, dress and age. They can be seen as weak if they show emotion.

And that’s a problem. When it comes to finding leaders who can address our nation’s problems, we can’t afford to write off half the population.

In Mexico, there was no question the next president would be a woman. Sheinbaum, who will take office in October, won decisively. Her leading opponent was also a woman: Xochitl Galvez.

Sheinbaum is certainly qualified. A former mayor of Mexico City, she has a Ph.D. in energy engineering. Her campaign benefited from the support of current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, but she is expected to be more data-driven and less combative in her approach.

It may seem surprising that Mexico elected a woman president before we did. Mexican women didn’t get the right to vote in national elections until 1953, 33 years after women in the U.S. Mexico is known for a culture of “machismo,” and violence against women is a huge problem. But recent reforms gave women more political access. Women hold half the seats in Mexico’s Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is a woman.

Women have come a long way, obviously, in U.S. politics. When I arrived in Congress, in 1965, there were only 11 women in the House and two in the Senate. Today there are a record 126 women in the House and 25 in the Senate. But the glass ceiling of the presidency hasn’t been broken, even though we’ve seen many examples elsewhere of women as strong national leaders.

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving prime minister of the United Kingdom in the 20th century. Angela Merkel was chancellor of Germany for 16 years. As early as the 1960s, India chose Indira Ghandi as prime minister and Israel chose Golda Meir. Women have been heads of state in Brazil, the Philippines, Ireland and dozens of other countries.

The U.S. elected its first woman vice president, Kamala Harris, just four years ago. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker of the House, first won the office in 2007. Harris and several other Democratic women ran credible campaigns for president in 2020. Republican Nikki Haley made a strong challenge to Trump this year.

Hillary Clinton arguably had as strong a resume as any recent presidential candidate: She had been first lady, senator from New York and secretary of state. Gallup polls consistently found her to be the most admired American woman, but the presidency eluded her.

The rise of women in politics has unquestionably been good for our country, and we should encourage it. Many talented women have strengthened our ability to solve difficult problems at all levels of government. But it takes more than talent and drive to be successful in politics. To reach the top, it also takes the right circumstances, especially for women.

Eventually, we will elect a woman president, and that will be an important milestone. When it comes to leadership, we need all the talent we can get.

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