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Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton, and the Prospect of a Female U.S. President: Can a Woman do the Job?

Updated on November 5, 2011
Julia Gillard, first female Prime Minister of Australia.  (Public Domain)
Julia Gillard, first female Prime Minister of Australia. (Public Domain)

Another woman makes political history.

In case you haven’t heard, Australia has a new prime minister. Her name (that’s right, a woman) is Julia Gillard. She’s making history as Australia’s first female prime minister, following a particularly brutal political climate.

Gillard’s victory is reminiscent of the fact that throughout history, women have steadily joined the ranks of world leaders over time. Women have almost always had a stake in politics, but only in the past few centuries—and by some estimates, the last few decades—have they achieved the same clout in the field as men. It also calls to mind the political climate here in America and the special challenges a woman seeking the U.S. Presidency might face.

It’s arguably easier to become a female prime minister than a female president—the prime minister is determined by the majority of the Members of Parliament, whereas the president is directly elected by the people. Even so, the prospect of an American female president is a good one to revisit now.

Hillary Clinton, 67th United States Secretary of State. (Public Domain)
Hillary Clinton, 67th United States Secretary of State. (Public Domain)

The most recent chance America had to choose a female president was in 2009, when Hillary Clinton proved to be a formidable candidate in the presidential election. However, as is well known, she didn’t manage to clinch the nomination (but oh, did she try); that honor of course went to Barack Obama. The question remains though: why wasn’t Clinton nominated?

Some might say the answer is simple enough: Obama was simply a more attractive Democratic candidate with a more expertly-run campaign. For the most part, this seemed to be the case. People wanted a relative outsider who represented “change” and “hope”, and that Obama did: visually, by being African-American, socially, by creating a huge network of volunteers and supporters, and vocally, by preaching about the dawn of a new era in American politics.

But, would people have voted for Hillary if Obama wasn’t there? She was seasoned, popular, well-respected both at home and abroad. But there were a few sociopolitical factors, in my opinion, that may have prevented her and past female contenders from being nominated by major parties and elected to office.

1. American conservative culture

America has a strong and vibrant culture of conservatism. It probably has the strongest such zeitgeist among the major Western powers, and despite a growing liberalism, America as a whole remains on the center-right. Conservatives mostly aren’t loath to endorse female leadership, but a conservative culture might be less conducive to a female presidential candidacy.

Many conservatives hanker for a return to traditional, “old-fashioned” family values and gender roles. A society in which men are the breadwinners and the heads of the household, and women provide a supporting role and look after the children. One can see how the average woman might find it difficult to break away from that mold and take on the social roles monopolized by men. Even if a few strong women managed to do so, the cultural climate and popular opinion of the past would have prevented a woman from getting too far ahead.

But things have been changing for a while now, and changing fast. Through two World Wars, women demonstrated that they too can be upwardly-mobile hard workers and providers, and a series of ongoing reforms extending to the modern day are recognizing the right of women to earn as much money as men. The idea of female political leaders now is thus much more acceptable than it was in previous generations. America is becoming more culturally progressive, our notions of “tradition” and social values are changing, and the idea of a woman president is fast gaining acceptance.

Every president has been male. It's very difficult to step outside of a deeply-rooted cultural tradition. It may be tough for the populace to adjust to a new kind of political model and head-of-state, but as Americans have proven, it can be done.

2. Perceptions of a woman’s “strength” and psychological capacity

Culturally and socially, women are often seen as the “weaker” sex, owing a lot to physical features and historical female roles. The media also reinforces the idea that women are emotionally unstable and stagnant in decision-making. It’s unfortunate, because women have as many strengths as men do, just in different areas.

In a center-right culture, even upwardly-mobile, independent, successful women are going to sometimes be considered less capable of handling the high political decision-making pressure of the presidency. But that’s another thing that’s changing. A woman might be more in tune with her emotions and those of others than a man, but that doesn’t mean she can’t control her emotions and think things through rationally and clearly. Surely if women are so capable, a well-qualified woman can be trusted with the demands of the presidency.

3. Concerns over how much a female president will be respected abroad

Conservative sentiments over a woman’s role definitely aren’t limited to America—they exist in many countries around the world. You might recall the incident in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il called Hillary Clinton a “schoolgirl,” suggesting that she was ill-equipped to be Secretary of State, much less President. Incidents like this might make people shy away from the prospect of an American female president. America takes great pride in nurturing it’s great international status and influence; by tradition and policy, it bends to no one else. If Hillary Clinton (or any woman, for that matter) were President and another leader of equal status were to insinuate that she’s too immature for leadership, it would be devastating PR for “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The American people rightfully want a leader who will garner the respect, admiration—even the emulation—of other world leaders. But women shouldn't be dismissed on that basis. There are many female leaders who are thriving politically. As long as America lives up to its ideals and can thus viably and diplomatically promote them, the right female leader will only enhance the country’s standing in the world.

And there we have it: it makes perfect sense that a well-qualified woman should one day soon be Commander-in-Chief. Some Australians have cause for pride in the fact that they’ve just joined the ranks of modern nations with a female leader. All that’s needed now in America is for the right woman to present herself on the national stage, and for enough of the electorate to have an open mind towards the idea.


Will Julia Gillard's election affect attitudes towards women leaders in the U.S.?

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Is the American hesitation to elect a female president justified?

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Please note, I am NOT taking partisan sides here. You're welcome to comment, but please keep it on topic. Thanks.

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    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Still not sure why the gender of the president is an issue.

    • Jo_Goldsmith11 profile image


      5 years ago

      This was a great article about Ms. Clinton and the new leader for Australia . I voted and voluntered for Obama since 2007 and up to 2012. I would do the same for a woman too, who wished to run for office. You are so correct in a woman could and probably would do a good job as President.

      The women who are congresswoman, Gabby Giffords comes to my mind.

      This is a woman who I wish could of sat in the oval office. Ms. Giffords held true to herself everytimes she speaks.

      Ms. Clinton seems to see things as the conservatives do on some areas. Ms. Clinton isn't really up for it as she let some of us down during her Secretary of State role. She knew about Syria and the Bangazhi issue. She decided to play politics, instead of staying true to herself. Any woman other than a Clinton female should be in the highest office of our land, in my opinion anyway. Great article..voted up +++ shared.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      5 years ago from Ohio, USA

      ... still not sure why we care about the gender of an Australian or US President.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Interesting insights, JamaGenee. I definitely believe that opening the door to gender equality in politics will give our democracy part of the charge (and change) it really needs. We won't solve our most pressing issues unless we approach them united and standing strong.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      For whatever reason, America has always operated under the misconception that OUR way is the best (and only) way, that how other countries do things is backward. Recent history repeatedly demonstrates that WE have become the backward ones. Backwards in education, backwards in religious zealotry, backwards in how we treat our poor, infirm and elderly. Thanks to this arrogance, we won't acknowledge that national health care works and works well in every other developed country, let alone that having a female prez would be a GOOD thing. That's the real change we NEED, not switching the party in power in the Oval Office and/or Congress every two or four years.

      Until the U.S. electorate matures to the point that gender has NO bearing on one's ability to occupy the Oval Office, we are doomed to fall even farther behind as a true democracy.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Very interesting stuff Jane. I think that women in many cases (not all) are subject to unfair scrutiny when it comes to the prospect of leadership and responsibility. And, after women have proven themselves throughout history to be more than capable of handling the job. The media doesn't help when it fuels the fire of stereotypes and misconceptions. Politicians should be scrutinized, perhaps--but not vilified on the basis of such things as gender.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi Benny,

      Not saying this means anything much but it's interesting to note that one of the most co-operative, peaceful and sexually free societies on earth has female leadership--Bonobo monkeys.

      I suppose we'll know we've really advanced as a species when gender, or race for that matter, just isn't even mentioned. It was very noticable during the Australian election campaign how critical the media was of Julia Guillard on a personal level. Her clothes, the girth of her arse, even her earlobes for god's sake, were heavily criticised. It's hard to imagine a male politician undergoing that same level of physical scrutiny.

      But the most scathing attacks of all were directed at her being unmarried and childless, as though this somehow made her 'unnatural' and 'unwomanly'. Odd when we consider that if she was married with a bunch of kids she would hardly have time for a political career.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks for the update MPG Narratives! I'm also trying to follow those election results as I learn more about Australian politics...I must agree with you, they are quite interesting.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 

      8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      We now have a hung parliament, no side has won yet. Will be interesting to see what happens as Independents will determine the balance of power. I would like to see Julia win but really no one knows yet. I think she has what it takes to lead well. It was an interesting result to a quite boring election campaign.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, someonewhoknows. Women can certainly be as ruthless as men, but I take that to suggest female leaders can also be as effective and well-liked as their male counterparts.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      8 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      If,history is any judge of a womans role as a leader "Joan of Arch" comes to mind.Also,Mary queen of Scots and her quarrel with queen Elizabeth the first.Then there is Queen Elizabeth the seconds families insistance especially of her mother queen Elizabeth the first that King Philip give up his right to the title of King of England as a condition of their marrage.Of,course none of them were voted into power ,but their stories show that women can be just as ruthless as men.

      Personally I think women should have as much power as men when it comes to voting and the freedoms men have.However I'm not blind to the fact that women and men have traditionally played different role in society based on their gender specific brains and hormones etc.

      Then there is the idea that we are all spirits having a human experiance and gender is simply one of those experiances.If,you believe this to be the case then it's possible that many of these spirits have decided to incarnate only into male bodies and others into female bodies exclusively.Those who choose to incarnate into both genders at different incarnations may be confused as to which gender they identify with.Then there may be other reasons for incarnating into the body of the opposite gender.Maybe there is a lesson that must be learned by doing that.Then we all do have free will,so I'm only guessing what the reason may be.

      I do not understand the need to be attracted to ones own gender sexually.It,may be a psychological choice on the part of the one incarnating.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Ms Dee: Very interesting book; I'll be sure to check it out some more. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      I appreciate your reflective writing and your support for females in politics. Like SteveoMc, though, I am not as hopeful as I once was in the latitude of power a US president has anymore. I think much of what was reported in the following is true.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Jim: Thanks for your comment. You make some interesting points about Hillary reminding people maybe a bit too much of Bill. Of course, what I wrote wasn't meant to explain exactly why Hillary wasn't nominated and then elected; it was more reflection on societal attitudes that haven't been very conducive to high-stakes female leadership in general.

      Wayne: Thanks for your comment. I believe that a person's gender should neither disqualify a candidate, nor should it be a deciding factor in a nomination or election. I agree that we shouldn't have diversity in leadership just for it's own sake. The country would be better off if we simply elected the right person for the job, regardless of such things as gender.

    • Wayne Brown profile image

      Wayne Brown 

      8 years ago from Texas

      I think you article paints an accurate picture as it applies to the USA and the world. American business is heavily caught up in the issue of "diversity" and "diversity appreciation". It becomes quite easy to actually convince ourselves that the rest of the world is operating on that perspective. In actuality, this is not the case as countries like North Korea, the Middle East, and others do not take a fair look at women. With that in mind, if the USA is going that way, we need to do it as a "leader" in the world and not as a "compromiser". As long as we feel that we must "conform" to the desires and wishes of these other countries we run the potential of complicating that process with female leaders. What a shame but we cannot have it both ways and we cannot seem to make up our mind who needs who the most. Certainly the pockets of resistance in the this country are diminishing and i truly believe it is a viable situation especially in light of the fact that we have now elected a black muslim to the office. In light of that fact, a woman in office looks fantastic! Thanks for a good write! WB

    • Jim Bryan profile image

      Jim Bryan 

      8 years ago from Austin, TX

      Good Hub Benny, but Hillary also represented her husband. That influenced her electability in the minds of some democrats. John McCain is not a push-over candidate, and the Republican base would have frothed over another Clinton in the White House.

      billyaustindillon - I knew Anne Richards. I've spoken with the late Governor at length at various times, I campaigned for her, she married her high school sweetheart (Dave Richards), and they sure had a lot of children (four) for her to be a lesbian. Not that there is anything wrong with being a lesbian, she just wasn't.

      This is central to the issue, however. The perception that "strong" women are all lesbians should be laughable. As early as 1993, I heard rumor that Hillary was secretly having an affair with "Night Court" actress Markie Post. Allegations towards Thatcher's sexuality were rampant at one time. I'm sure the same rumors abound in segments of Australian society about PM Gillard. My point is that it is a common tactic to discredit female opponents, and, while possible in certain cases, should be viewed in most cases as pure nonsense.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks Always Greener! Interesting stuff about Gillard. Stoicism can be a virtue in politics.

    • profile image

      Always Greener 

      8 years ago

      Julia Gillard is awesome, she is very cool. I don't know that Hillary Clinton is quite in her league. As Australians will know, the religious right really try to rattle the PM in question time and in the media - but nothing, absolutely nothing, gets to her. She's as cool as a cucumber. It's far easier to get Ms Clinton angry.

    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 

      8 years ago from United States

      I think you're right about the 2008 election. Americans were looking for change so it was the best possible time for someone to be elected without their gender/race getting in the way (or possibly being an advantage). Had Obama not run for president, I believe Hillary would have had a very good chance to win. And I think that's why the battle between the two of them was so heavily covered by the media. Democrats were poised to retake the white house and it wasn't just a battle for the nomination, it was a battle for the win. I just hope that Hillary, or someone like her, steps up to the plate in future years so that the progressive movement started with Obama isn't lost and forgotten. America is in serious need of progress and I believe it is people like Obama and Hillary that can bring it about.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      billyaustindillon: Very interesting perspective. I'll check out your hub on Gillard. Admittedly, I don't know much of the intricacies of Australian politics. My main intent was to discuss the dynamics of the prospect of an female American president, in light of Gillard's historic ascension, and to discuss relevant societal attitudes. (Fascinating points about conservatism and Texan politics, by the way.)

      I do agree that the best person should ultimately be chosen for the job, whether male or female, and unfortunately, campaigns and broken political systems can sway the outcome away from that ideal.

      I believe gender should neither be a determining nor discriminating factor in an election. Thanks for commenting!

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      Interesting hub - I wrote myself about Julia Gillard and the labor coup that got her there - all that dirty laundry is being exposed right now and the bet is for an excellent being called for about 6 weeks. With Hillary it was more of the case of Obamas's media machine defeating here than anything else. I don't think it was American's not wanting a female leader. Interesting that people pop up that America is too conservative - Texas - pretty conservative in Religion, values etc - There government before Bush was Anne Richards - A democrat lesbian - I think in comes done to who ever is the best men or woman for the job. I think it is whether the faceless men who run these campaigns like those in Australia are ready - the masses are ready IMHO.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      StevoMc: Thanks for your comment. I agree that both female and male politicians can be disappointing. And while I think the right person with the right team can effect positive change in government, the system is often too big and too dysfunctional for that change to be noticeable, or implemented in any efficient way. I think a lot of people are disillusioned about and apathetic towards politics for those reasons.

    • SteveoMc profile image


      8 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      From my perspective, it makes no difference, man or woman, etc. I look for leadership and connection with my beliefs. So for me it does not matter if it is a woman.

      By the same token, I have been disappointed by both men and women in politics. The system prevents much in the way of new leadership.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks yet again, Internetwriter62, for joining the discussion! You're right, many women have proven themselves as capable heads of state and government. I don't know too much about Bachelet's administration, but I'll be sure to research it more.

      You're right about the person who "plays it better or smarter" being the victor in the political arena. I think both Hillary and Obama made notable mistakes (Obama's comment about "guns and religion" comes to mind), but ultimately Obama's campaigning and fundraising efforts were incredible galvanizing forces that outshone everybody else's pitches in the end. He simply had some incredibly smart people behind him.

      Of course, the issues women face aren't the only reasons we haven't had a female president--they simply serve to illustrate that female candidates face a multifaceted challenge and have to deal with a few more considerations than men.

      But in any case, I'm happy to have contributed something meaningful and hopefully useful to this subject. Thanks again!

    • Internetwriter62 profile image


      8 years ago from Marco Island, Florida

      Thanks for a very interesting and insightful hub Benny. I don't know how a female president will do if elected in this country (United States) but there have been successful female leaders, such as the last Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who ran Chile in a peaceful way during her time as president, I went there and it is a wonderful country.

      Hillary did do a couple of mistakes during her election, I was following the Democratic Party more closely during 2008 because I knew our next president was going to be a Democrat, and Hillary should not have done that comment on the Snipper fire when she went to Bosnia, that really hurt her credibility. On the other hand Obama managed to use the Rev. Wright incident to his advantage by making a brilliant speech on civil rights. Unfortunately politics is not about who is better or smarter, it about who plays it better or smarter. That doesn't mean that being a woman didn't play a large role in public opinion, and the conservative mindset did not create a stumbling block as well.

      So if any woman wants to be president she will have to play it smart, really smart. Thanks again for a fascinating perspective on a difficult subject. Rated it up.

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      It's frustrating man--we hinder our own advancement as a society when we hold on to old misconceptions and we're unwilling to boldly branch out into new territory. It's something that irritates me even when I see it among people in everyday life.

      Where it comes from? Social psychology holds that we're intuitively more comfortable with people who are more "like" us racially and culturally, and cognitive heuristics cause us to "screen out" and assume things (sometimes untrue, usually stereotypical) about people outside our social comfort zones. Individuals can train themselves to overcome that, though.

      The good thing is that, individually and collectively, Americans are making some progress in that area, albeit slowly.

      Thanks for commenting and rating up, by the way!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great, topical, relevant! Rated up!

      It's going to happen eventually. Oh...the social hindrances. When will people stop seeing color and gender, and elect people based on their human qualities? I'm not vindicating myself. Where do these prejudices come from?

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks for stopping by Tony! I believe we're definitely on our way to having a female president. The cultural climate is headed in a direction much more conducive to that.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Generally speaking I'm in favour of women leaders. Two who spring to mind as less desirable as leader were Maggie the Iron Butt and Indira Gandhi. The less said about them the better. But I would have loved to see Hilary as pres!

      Love and peace



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