The first woman president was supposed to make history by accumulating such deep experience that few could deny her ability to serve as commander in chief.
Hillary Clinton did that, and lost. Now women politicians and those working to elect them — Democrats and Republicans alike — are sifting through her defeat to understand what her loss means for future women candidates and to find a future path.
Their effort is complicated by the very things that made Clinton’s nomination both inevitable and troubled: her singular standing and unique negatives.
While the number of women elected to office has grown markedly over the decades, polling shows that in a race for the White House they still must demonstrate they are capable of commanding the government and in particular the U.S. military, a masculine institution despite its own gender strides.
That inevitably conflicts with another voter demand: for a fresh face — like that, say, of President Obama, who defeated Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008 in part because he appealed to voters’ desire for change.
“You can’t get those qualifications, get that résumé, while also being able to present yourself as a change candidate,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
“Men aren’t held to the same standard of proving their credentials.”
Most damaging, she was unable to fully benefit from the advantages that usually flow to a woman candidate — being seen by voters as more honest, trustworthy and both a unifier and the one who most cares about constituents’ concerns.
That has left a puzzle: How much of the loss reflected Clinton’s particular vulnerabilities, how much involved opposition that any future woman candidate may face?
Unquestionably, Clinton faced unique problems: Her decision as secretary of State to use a private email server, which led to extended controversies; media coverage of separate Democratic emails now believed to have been hacked by Russian operatives; and a relentless line of assault casting her as corrupt, first by primary challenger Bernie Sanders and later by Trump.
She also faced a unique opponent, Donald Trump, whose image of swashbuckling masculinity shaped the campaign more than any of Clinton’s milder efforts to use gender to her advantage.
Clinton’s supporters have been left counting smaller victories, like the fact that she won more votes than any candidate ever, apart from President Obama.
They are also casting Clinton’s reach for history as part of a decades-long effort that, by definition, includes stumbles.
“It’s been a struggle, it’s always been a struggle — that’s the nature of the fight for equality,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who was elected in 1992, a year when the number of women senators tripled.
“The fact that we got to have first woman nominee of a major party is an enormous breakthrough, and we’ll build on that,” she said.
But others suggest that this year’s campaign portends trouble for whichever women come next.
At a recent panel discussion at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, which included representatives from both campaigns, Trump’s manager, Kellyanne Conway, argued that the country was ready to elect a woman president — just not this particular woman in a year in which voters demanded change.
“On gender, it wasn’t a hypothetical,” she said of voters’ options. “It was Hillary. So it’s not just a woman; it’s one that people had lived with for quite a while.”
That drew a pained response from Clinton’s media strategist, Mandy Grunwald, who suggested that Clinton had rare standing to be seen as a potential commander in chief, given her tenure as secretary of State, U.S. senator from New York and as a first lady deeply involved in policy matters.
“You may think the country is ready for a woman, any old woman, just a different one. There are very few people who will ever meet that test,” Grunwald said, adding: “I hope I am wrong.”
Clinton’s campaign was a real-world test that shined a bright light at some of the downsides of women’s candidacies.
The degree of punishment she took from voters concerned about perceived ethical lapses was one of those. Throughout the campaign, prompted by broadsides from Sanders and Trump, voters were sharply critical of Clinton when it came to honesty and truthfulness.
The virulence of their sentiments suggested that women, usually held in high regard on those fronts, suffer more than male candidates when seen as not meeting that standard.
For women candidates, “that fall from the pedestal may be longer and harder,” said Dittmar.
Clinton’s perceived ethical difficulties, she noted, took more of a toll than Trump’s arguably larger constellation of problems, which included repetitive falsehoods, wrongdoing by his foundation, tax issues and the fraud case leveled against Trump University.
“One reason could be that we expected it,” she said. “We expect that men have those issues.”
And while Clinton benefited to some extent from the prospect of being an historic first, Trump successfully made gender arguments of his own.
He made gender-based gibes at Clinton throughout his campaign, much as he had sought to diminish his primary opponents by mocking their height or lack of combativeness or, in the case of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, her looks.
He talked tough, invoking the specter of violence, repeatedly and on a range of issues. His official health report listed his testosterone level, an atypical disclosure that stood out given the lack of detail he released on other health questions. His campaign did nothing to push back against vulgar references to women on T-shirts and campaign buttons at his events.
Whatever the motive for that style, it appealed to concerns that many voters still have about a woman commander in chief and women’s role in society.
An April poll by PRRI/The Atlantic asked whether Americans felt society “has become too soft and feminine.” Two in five voters said that it had; among Trump supporters, 68% said so.
In response to another question, two in five voters said that society was better off when men and women hewed to traditional gender roles.
In October — the height of the controversy over Trump’s treatment of women — another PRRI/The Atlantic poll showed 56% of Americans believed society “seems to punish men just for acting like men.”
Sentiments like that serve as a negative starting point for the next high-level candidacies by women.
Women currently hold 1/5th of the seats in the Senate and the House, as well as six governorships, positions that serve as one form of entree to a White House bid. Women hold prominent positions in business, which Trump demonstrated can be a launching pad.
Ironically, Trump himself may go a long way in clarifying the future path for women candidates. A successful Trump presidency could enhance the odds for a woman candidate with a business or military background. A failed Trump presidency could reinforce the desire for someone with more political or governmental experience, more empathy or the reams of policy proposals that gained Clinton little traction.
Key for the next round of women presidential candidates will be finding the balance that eluded Clinton, between experience and freshness, between empathy and toughness.
They will have one benefit: They will not have been a symbol of cultural tumult, as Clinton and her generation of women candidates have been, perhaps giving them more latitude to navigate the nation’s views.
“As a baby boomer, she was a generationally challenging figure, certainly as the first first lady that had a career,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s campaign communications director, said at the Harvard panel. “She didn’t stay home and bake cookies. She broke a lot of rules.
“She’s been an uncomfortable presence for a long time.”
The next generation may also benefit from the shock value of Clinton’s loss. Women’s groups report increased interest by younger women in political activism, a direct outgrowth of the November defeat.
Boxer, who will leave her Senate post in January, called such reports “heartening.”
“I’m very optimistic looking forward,” she said.