Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first woman to serve in the United States Congress in 1916. This was well over one hundred-forty years after independence in July 1776. As Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton focuses on her appointment with history, it is daunting to reflect on the political path the American woman has walked. She had to wait for nearly one and a half centuries before serving in the legislature. Yet, it only gets worse. Consider that American women only began voting after the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Rebecca Felton of Georgia was the first woman in the U.S. Senate in 1922. Other historic triumphs came in quick order. Alice Robertson of Oklahoma became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives, that same year. Mae Ella Nolan of California became chair of a congressional committee in 1923, while Hattie Caraway was elected to the Senate in 1932. The rest is history, as the saying goes.
In the patriarchal world we live in, it has not been easy history, however. Women remain an insignificant minority in the legislature the world over. Here in Kenya, the Constitution provides for women’s inclusion. In practice, men will do everything to ensure women are excluded. Parliament has recently lost the chance to legislate for the Two-thirds Gender Principle. Legislators are hugely challenged to bring the legislature issues of import to women and girls.
It was the same in the U.S. The pioneer female legislators were considered junior to their male counterparts. They faced the usual chauvinisms that are born out of traditional gender-based orthodoxy. It is an orthodoxy that has constructed a social environment that marginalizes and brutalizes women – at home and away. Tragically, the propaganda that fuels this orthodoxy makes men and women alike slaves to it.
Breaking through this belief system is no mean task. In many parts of the world, today, gender based violence against women is safe and well. Female genital mutilation (FGM) remains one of the worst forms of gender based violence (GBV). According to WHO sources more than 200 million women and girls around the world today live with violently mutilated genitalia. Two hundred million! Most are from Africa and Asia. Here, this anachronistic tradition is revered, even worshipped.
But the practice is also found in Europe, the United States and Canada. Immigrant populations fly their daughters home for mutilation. Ironically these will usually be learned individuals. Even back home, highly educated people medically sneak their daughters through the practice. There is a surfeit of myths driving the anachronism. Suffice it to say that the myths undermine the woman’s self esteem, even making her buy into them.
People like Hillary Clinton fill us up with fresh hope. But it is not just Hillary. It is the entire world around her and the inherent support nets and mechanisms. Hillary has spoken of the support she has enjoyed from her family, from childhood. First Lady Michelle Obama has her own kindred narratives. Her autobiography, Living History, talks of a conservative father who nonetheless believed that his daughter should not be limited because of gender. Then there were two supportive younger brothers and a mother who believed in her. Her teachers, too, recognized her outstanding qualities. They lent the necessary support to nurture them to maturity.
Long before she met her future husband and future 42nd U.S. President Bill Clinton at Yale, Hilary had a rich catalogue of leadership achievements, in school and in her community. She grew up as a Republican. In her high school years, she mobilized support for the presidential campaigns of such leading personalities as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and even Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat. Her proactive and self-driven outstanding leadership roles in this phase of her life are simply mind-boggling.
To attempt to list Hillary’s accomplishments is to do her great injustice. I commend to you Living History instead. In the long run, we see Hillary guiding herself to dump the Republicans, following Nixon’s appalling presentation of Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican primaries of 1968. Put together with concerns about veiled racism in the Republican Party, the war in Vietnam and a whale of other social incongruities, she quit the Grand Old Party for good. With or without getting married to a politician who would later become President, Hillary was made for greatness.
President Obama has endorsed his former Secretary of State in his succession race, after she became the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the November election. Going forward, it is going to be a bristling battle against the grumpy, blustery and polarizing Donald Trump. You can count on the Republican candidate to mount a free-knuckled battle He has already demonstrated propensity for assaulting her personality and her femininity. Indeed womanhood will broadly be brought into focus and under assault in this campaign. While women have campaigned for and won high office elsewhere in the world, the Clinton and Trump duel is going to be the mother of them all. Regardless of all the assets and liabilities that the candidates bring to this campaign, questions of gender as a matter of social construction will feature, both overtly and covertly.
The foremost global democracy has twice elected a Black president in our times. It stands on the edge of history once again. Is it about to elect its first woman president? The race for the White House could get even more electrifying, should Hillary opt for an all female ticket with the magnetic Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren, as her running mate. My dream is to see such a ticket take history to Washington. It would be a monumental achievement for humankind, a milestone in the gender discourse and the global search for gender equity. It would be the ultimate fulfillment for every father who loves his daughters and every conscientious husband. I begin to understand why outsiders have often wept louder than the bereaved. I am excited about this American election.