Hillary Clinton’s bid to become the first female president ended Tuesday night. But even in defeat, she sought in her concession speech Wednesday to inspire and encourage young women who had invested hope in her campaign:
And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.
Clinton’s loss is no doubt a setback for the efforts to shatter the “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in American politics, but our research suggests that her campaign may still increase young women’s political engagement. What Clinton’s candidacy ultimately means for women’s underrepresentation in office, however, is less clear.
One reason Clinton’s campaign may spur female political engagement is that Clinton herself sought to cultivate an image as a role model. When Clinton secured the Democratic nomination in July, she tweeted a picture of herself dancing with a young girl. “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want — even president,” she wrote. “This night is for you.”
We find that adolescent girls become more likely to say they plan to be active in politics as adults when the number of women running competitive campaigns for office — not just winning — increases. Given that Clinton has likely won the popular vote and lost the electoral college by a relatively small margin, we can surely describe her candidacy as competitive.
But such effects are not automatic. There are at least two factors that affect whether female candidates end up serving as political role models for young women: how women in politics are described by the media, and whether politics are discussed over the dinner table as a result.
First, adolescent girls are more likely to become interested in political activism when the media characterizes female politicians as unusual, pathbreaking or remarkable. It seems a pretty safe bet that Clinton’s campaign has been viewed as pathbreaking by most Americans.
Headlines from the Democratic National Convention typically noted that she was the first woman at the top of a major-party ticket. In her acceptance speech, Clinton called her nomination a “milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union.”
Moreover, Donald Trump ensured that gender remained front and center during the campaign. By claiming that Clinton’s appeal was based on her playing the “woman card” and calling her a “nasty woman” during the final debate, Trump helped remind Americans that she was attempting to make history.
Second, we find that it’s not just what girls see or read that matters. It may also depend on whether the Clinton campaign spurred conversations about politics between parents and daughters at home.
When the presence of female politicians leads parents and children to talk politics, girls become more interested in political participation. Thus, parents play an important role in ensuring that youth make the connection between the political world and their own lives.
Ironically, this means that even the disparaging rhetoric about Clinton that arose from Trump rallies and some of his supporters may help to engage young girls. If the unprecedented nature of Clinton’s candidacy— highlighted by the candidate herself, her opponent and the media — means politics became a topic of conversation within America’s homes, adolescent girls may become more engaged in politics as a result.
Over the long run, the reverberations could be significant. If the political engagement of young women increases, that may help undermine one of the key reasons for women’s underrepresentation: women are far less likely to run for office than men. Seeing a female candidate run for president may lead more girls and women to envision themselves as candidates as well.
Of course, there are reasons to doubt that Clinton’s unsuccessful bid will lead more women to politics. Concerns about discrimination help explain the reluctance of qualified women to seek elective office. And although gender bias — by the media and voters — is far less prevalent in politics than it used to be, it is clear that a woman running for office exposes herself to considerable scrutiny and criticism. To the extent that becomes the focus of postelection analyses, it may serve to discourage more women from running.
But ultimately, whether a “Hillary generation” of politically engaged young women emerges to pick up the pieces will certainly shape the course of women’s representation in the United States for years to come.
Christina Wolbrecht is associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Find her on Twitter at @C_Wolbrecht.
David Campbell is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.