Nancy Cohen, historian and author, published Breakthrough, the Making of America’s First Woman President this year in advance of the election and appears this week at the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee to talk about the results. Her writings on women and American politics have appeared in mainstream publications like the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, and the New Republic. Having taught at Occidental College, Cal State Long Beach, and UCLA, she sits on the Los Angeles County Commission on the Status of Women. Susan Rose asked Cohen about women’s role in politics in advance of her talk on Thursday.
The question your book asked, is America ready for a woman president, was answered for now by the election of Donald Trump. Did you believe that 2016 would be right for a woman? A few years back, my 9-year-old daughter asked, “How many girl presidents have we had?” I laughed, but then realized that she assumes women are equal, because that’s the world she sees.
It made me very curious about the long road women in politics have traveled. We couldn’t vote until 1920, and here we were, on the cusp of a historic milestone. Were we ready to elect a woman? If so, how — and who — had made possible? Would the double standard still be too powerful? And ultimately, would it matter? Which gets to whether women lead differently. I interviewed over 100 people — senators, governors, Democrats and Republicans, voters and experts, women and men — to find out. My goal in Breakthrough was to take you inside the room with these women leaders to see how it’s done.
Hillary is a central character in my book. But it was never meant to be about her alone. It’s a story of movements. Still, let’s remember, she won the national popular vote. So we have an answer to whether America is ready for a woman president. Yes, but not Hillary, for a lot of reasons — but not primarily because she is a woman.
You describe a political infrastructure that has been built over the years for and by women that enables women to run and win. Thirty years ago no Democratic woman had been elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right. No Republican woman had been elected governor in her own right. Women were qualified and interested. But the Old Boys Club wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for them. They withheld endorsements, but most of all they withheld the money for women candidates. So women realized they had to do it on their own to succeed. They created fundraising powerhouses, like Emily’s List and the Women’s Political Committee — like Santa Barbara’s. Piece by piece they built networks and infrastructure to advance women. That’s the real untold story of how we got here — and why there are 20 women senators — and why America will be able to elect a woman president.
In your book you call voting emotional and not rational. What you found out about the “political brain?” Americans invest so much emotional energy in the presidency particularly — there’s a history here going back to George Washington that I talk about. We’re like Goldilocks. We want our president to be strong and warm, charismatic but not egotistical, to project gravitas and that they want to have a beer with us. These judgments are often coming out of our emotions not our reason — out of the old lizard part of the brain. This election was a pretty powerful example of that!
Is there a concern for voters about women candidates and electeds balancing motherhood and political office? No, not at all! This is one of the encouraging recent developments. There is no evidence at all that voters judge women about their parenting decisions.
How much do abortion and Planned Parenthood still play an important role in national politics? Do they matter to voters? Unfortunately we’re about to learn how big a role abortion still plays in national politics. Trump will almost certainly appoint Supreme Court justices who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Voters do care about preserving women’s reproductive rights. But it can be difficult for the issue to break through amid all the other noise. Fortunately Planned Parenthood and NARAL [National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League] have become two of the most energetic, innovative, advocacy groups out there. They’ve activated millions of young women to be feminist activists.
In 2012 women were 53 percent of voters. What is the gender gap, and how did it play out in Obama’s (and Hillary’s) election? That’s a great question, because even though talk of the “gender gap” is all over the media, it’s often used to mean different things. The term was coined to describe the fact that women and men vote differently. The gap compares how women and men vote.
In general, women favor Democrats and men favor Republicans. Because women turn out in much higher numbers than men, Democrats usually benefit from the gender gap. But in 2016, men broke so hard for Trump that it wiped out the advantage Hillary had with women. Just as you can say women elected Obama, you can say men elected Trump.
You describe how women currently in Congress (19 percent) have a different way of doing business. Why does it matter if women are in office? Why do we need a woman president? For three major reasons, one which you touch on: style, substance, and symbolism. The global research is unequivocal about this.
One, women’s style of governing is more collaborative and inclusive. Two, women leaders do more to advance gender equality and women’s rights — from reproductive health to sexual violence to equal pay. They tend to make women’s interests a priority, and it’s pretty rare still for men to do the same.
Finally, it’s worth reflecting this week on the message we send by our choice of president. The symbolism of a woman in our highest office can’t be overstated. The research shows definitively that there is a role model effect on teenage girls and young women when women occupy high political office.
Seeing a woman as the face of power inspires girls to get more involved in politics and run for office. And looking at the reaction of young women to Hillary’s loss, I think we can now add, watching a supremely qualified woman defeated by a misogynist is a powerful motivator to action.
On November 17, Nancy Cohen speaks at a Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee event, “Cosmopolitics.” Held at the Santa Barbara Club, 5:30-7:30 p.m., the event is a fundraiser for the group, and information and reservations are available by calling 1 (800) 977-9348.