During Bill Clinton’s tour through his relationship with Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, he called his wife “the best darn change maker I ever met in my entire life.”
The former president was talking about her efforts to create social and political justice though her career in public service. But research suggests that Clinton’s nomination as the first woman to head a major party’s presidential ticket may also affect women’s representation in a nation where female political leaders have historically been as rare as a Vaporeon. (That’s a prized Pokémon, for those of you not in the Go — I mean, know.)
This could happen in at least three ways:
1. Clinton’s nomination may spur women to become more politically involved.
The Clinton campaign is planning an aggressive effort to mobilize women to vote, an effort it hopes will make the most of a huge advantage among female voters in a matchup with Republican nominee Donald Trump. If successful, that could bring women to the polls in larger numbers than in the past.
But the mere presence of Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket may also breed engagement with politics among young women. When female political leaders become prominent in the national media, young women are more likely to say that they plan to be politically active, according to a study by political scientists David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht.
This is not to say female voters automatically engage with politics when their political leaders are women. But Clinton’s prominence in the 2016 election cycle may spur women to talk politics. And given that young women are generally less likely to engage in political debates than their male counterparts (not all of whom are playing video games), this could serve as a precursor to deeper political engagement.
2. Clinton’s nomination may alter perceptions of gender bias.
When women run for office, they are just as likely to win as men. And while gender stereotypes are by no means a relic of history, they no longer pose significant obstacles to women’s election. Neither do the media systematically cover female candidates differently than they do men.
But much of the public doesn’t think that’s true. Majorities of Americans think the country isn’t ready for a female president and believe that female candidates are held to higher standards — by voters and the media — than are men.
Those views can change, though. In an experimental study, political scientists Conor Dowling and Michael Miller found that showing respondents a video demonstrating that women who run for office do just as well as men dramatically reduced perceptions of gender bias. And for many respondents, those altered perceptions persisted even two weeks after the experiment.
To the extent that Clinton’s nomination sends a signal that women can reach the peak of party politics, it may change public perceptions of what happens when women run.
3. Clinton may inspire more women to run for office.
Both of these things — increased political engagement by women and altered perceptions of the electoral playing field — may increase women’s likelihood of running for office. And that may have the biggest impact on women’s representation in the long run.
As Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox have shown, the primary source of women’s underrepresentation in the United States is the gender gap in political ambition: Women are much less likely than men to seek elective office in the first place. This is partly because they are less likely than men to be recruited by party leaders and activists (although that may be starting to change).
But it is also because women believe they are less qualified to run, in part because they expect to face gender bias on the campaign trail. To be sure, female candidates may have to put up with sexism — on social media and elsewhere — in a way that men don’t. But those episodes don’t mean they can’t win or won’t perform as well as men, something that Clinton capturing the Democratic nomination may underscore.
Of course, we don’t know whether Clinton will become the first female president of the United States. And a defeat in November could temper the glass-shattering narrative emerging from Philadelphia this week. But by achieving something that no other woman has, Clinton has created another opportunity to serve as a change maker, this time in service of women’s representation.