But rather than looking inward, voters would do well to widen the horizon and look abroad. Since the end of World War II, 64 countries have had a female head of state, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Power Index, which ranks countries on their progress toward gender parity in political participation. These countries — from Bangladesh and Liberia to Germany and New Zealand — vary significantly in terms of the overall status of women in society.
Yet even in countries where women face steep political, economic and social barriers, they’ve managed to climb the ladder all the way to the top. Several nations, such as Argentina and the Philippines, have had more than one female head of state, and today, almost 100 women have led their countries through the modern era — some during times of war, such as Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and others through financial crises, such as Johanna Sigurdardottir of Iceland.
How, then, should we explain the absence of a female president in the United States’ 244-year history — or in other countries that have failed to elect a woman to high office? Many factors are at play, including deeply ingrained gender bias, fueled by a pervasive belief that a woman cannot win due to other voters’ sexism. Heads of state are portrayed as sole executives, expected to act quickly and decisively — characteristics often associated with masculinity.
Overcoming these popular stereotypes remains a challenge: Indeed, women are more likely to rise to power in parliamentary systems in which heads of government are elected by party members, allowing them to bypass widespread voter prejudice, as compared to countries with popular elections such as the United States. Privilege and family ties also play a role: Many of the women elected to high office around the world are highly educated or have direct kinship ties to former leaders, including former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, who was first lady prior to her presidency, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, who studied at Harvard and Oxford University, and whose father served as both prime minister and president of Pakistan.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, the number of women shattering the political glass ceiling has surged over the last three decades. More than 85 percent of all female leaders taking office did so after 1990, and more than three-quarters of them rose to power in the 2000s. Today, 19 countries have a female head of state or government, including Croatia, Nepal and Slovakia. These women are making history on multiple fronts, breaking race, class and age barriers as well. In Finland, 34-year-old Sanna Marin became the head of government in December, making her the youngest head of government currently in office anywhere in the world.
Women are not only gaining executive power but also wielding a growing share of legislative power, with women running for — and winning — seats in national and local legislatures in unprecedented numbers, including in the United States. In 2018, more than twice as many women were elected to Congress than in 1992, the so-called “year of the woman.” In Lebanon, parliamentary elections produced an eightfold increase in the number of female candidates. And in Sri Lanka, a historic number of women running for local elections produced a staggering 2,340 percent increase in female officeholders.
As more women throw their hat in the ring and decide to run, they become role models, changing perceptions of what leadership looks like and inspiring other women to become politically engaged. Female political activism has surged in recent years, with women taking to the streets and leading protest movements from Chile to Hong Kong to Sudan, demanding action against corruption and inequality.
To be sure, female presidential candidates in the United States face a threshold that their counterparts in other countries don’t: campaigning for an office that is arguably the most powerful in the world. This country, however, is not immune to the overall trend of growth in women’s political power. On the contrary, our track record exemplifies it. Despite Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election, the fact remains that for the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of U.S. voters cast their ballot for a woman.
As Americans head to the polls in 2020, the question of whether women can be elected to lead at the highest level is the wrong question to ask; it has already been answered. Instead, they should vote for the best person for the job, whoever he or she may be.