by Piet Coetzer

US election

The rise of women in power

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton1.jpg

The re-election of Barack Obama, the first African American to become president of the United States, is not only an historical event in its own right. It marks the end  of Caucasian men dominating the US political scene and sets the stage for another historically significant election in four years time: the possible election of the first female US president. 

Women make up 53% of the American electorate, which is also slightly more than their share of the population. Importantly, the reality of this fact made itself felt in last week’s election as an analysis of the outcome shows that 55% of women voted for Obama while he pulled in only 45% of the votes from men. His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney received the nod from 44% of women voters and a 52% majority support from men.

Issues important to women, more than the generally accepted belief that the main issues were economic, were probably the deciding factors in the campaign. Romney’s campaign, for example, was dogged by ill-considered comments about rape and abortion by two conservative Republican candidates for the Senate – both of whom also bit the dust in their own campaigns in areas considered 'safe' for the Republicans.

Obama, on the other hand, could claim that he had started fixing the situation where female workers on average earn only 72% of their male counterparts with the very first act he signed as president. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act effectively overturned a Supreme Court ruling that Lilly Ledbetter could not bring suit after discovering that for years she had been paid less than a male colleague for the same work because she should have found out about it earlier.

The trend of women asserting themselves in the presidential election goes hand-in-hand with another new American demographic reality: since 2007 unmarried women outnumber their married sisters and the proportion is rising.

According to one think-tank, The Voter Participation Centre, (TVPC), between 2010 and 2012 unmarried women added 8.3 million or 19% new eligible voters to their share of the women’s vote. They now make up 23% of all voters.

Tellingly exit polls showed that 67% to 31% of these women voted for Obama over Romney, while from married women the result went 53% to 46% in Romney’s favour.

In addition to the presidential election, some other results from election 2012 also point to the rise of women's power in the US. These include:

  • A historic number of female representatives elected to Congress, including the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin;
  • The first Asian-American female senator Mazie Hirono in Hawaii;
  • The first female veteran wounded in combat, Rammy Duckworth, in Illinois;
  • New Hampshire became the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress;
  • Referendums in Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved same-sex marriage, while a measure in Minnesota to block gay unions failed; and
  • With the combined numbers of female and minority candidates the Democratic Party caucus for the first time in history will not have a white male majority.

From another perspective, the election result last week can also be described as a victory for an informal coalition of minorities. Most pundits agree that the Republican Party has painted itself into a demographic corner by alienating Hispanic voters with a harsh approach to immigration and younger voters with a hard line on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

What is emerging is a majority of blacks, professionals and young people in what the TVPC calls the “rising American electorate”.

It is clear that US elections are no longer dominated by white males and definitely cannot be won on the strength of Caucasian male votes alone. The 'white establishment' has become a minority.

Female candidate

The overall picture from this analysis is that the scene is set for the possibility of a strong female candidate and the election of the first female US president in 2016. The first moves towards this end might already be under way.

The long-serving Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has announced plans to step down from her position, in what could turn out to be a shrewd move to position herself for a run at the presidency come 2016.

Clinton, whose husband ex-president Bill Clinton played a prominent role in  Obama's campaign, indicated that she intends to take "a bit of a rest”. This would, of course, make it possible for her to avoid the risk of being tainted by what promises to be a very difficult second term for Obama. On both the economic and international relations fronts there are serious thunder clouds building.

By stepping aside now, she gives herself the opportunity to prepare for a run at the presidency next time round without being bogged down by the demands of day-to-day administration under testing circumstances.


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