March was an average month for me, until Hillary Clinton asked me for my number.
It was in response to a question I asked her at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference: “Yesterday, Manal (Al Sharif, Saudi Arabian feminist activist and blogger) was on the stage talking about Saudi Arabia, and somebody asked her, ‘If you don’t represent women in politics in Saudi Arabia, who will?’ My question today is, there is still so much inequality for women in America. As we have seen on this stage, you have been talking about STEM education and how only 16 percent of computer science graduates in this country are women. Ms. Clinton, if you don’t represent women in politics in America as future president, who will?”
Little did I know that my simple question would reignite the debate surrounding Clinton’s presidential candidacy in the international media and for politicos around the world. I also did not anticipate that my question would open Pandora’s box on a plethora of related, equally important questions — is gender inequality still a problem in one of the world’s most advanced countries? Why is descriptive representation even important in politics? Would Hillary be a good representative of women if she were elected to our nation’s highest office?
First and foremost, gender inequality is not a thing of the past, even in the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Gender inequality was not left behind in prewomen’s suffrage 1910s United States, and the fight was not over in the post-“Feminine Mystique,” second-wave feminist 1960s. Gender inequality still exists in the United States today in corporate boardrooms, politics, impoverished neighborhoods and public high schools. On a microlevel, I see gender inequality daily. I first observed this stark reality when I started working with Oakland public high schools. I noticed women had fewer academic and extracurricular opportunities, fewer role models and mentors and, unlike their male counterparts, they were rarely encouraged to pursue higher education and enter STEM fields. This gender inequality is what inspired me to create the nonprofit organization I was representing at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference, 100 Strong, which works to empower underprivileged high school women by providing them with mentors and leadership training. Inequality is even more visible on the macro-level: Modern America was ranked 78th in the world for women’s political representation, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, only 18.5 percent of the current U.S. Congress is composed of women and, unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the deluge of statistics showing the United States’ gender inequality.
But studies on Congress have shown that female members of Congress — in particular, Democratic congresswomen — have been more than 40 percent more likely than their male counterparts on either side of the aisle to sponsor at least one feminist bill that serves to further gender equality. When women become legislators, they are far more involved in the formation and advocacy of gender-based issues, including women’s health, reproductive rights, child care and wage equality. They are also more responsive to their constituents. The bottom line is that when it comes to representing women in politics, descriptive representation — the idea that elected representatives should represent the descriptive characteristics of their constituents — matters. It matters that we have men and women representing women, especially because we still have politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who referred to the recent debate over equal pay for women as “nonsense,” and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said he would not support making lawsuits easier on pay for women. Descriptive representation will continue to matter in our nation until the United States is ranked at the top of the list for women’s political representation, until women’s salaries are no different than men’s, until at least half of Congress is composed of women and until legislators cease to make light of gender inequality.
Representation matters, and Hillary has shown us that she can be a powerful representative. As our first First Lady of the United States with a graduate degree — from Yale Law School — some of her first accomplishments were the creation of the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice and the planning of healthcare policies that opened up the dialogue for today’s Affordable Care Act. A few years later, Sen. Clinton co-sponsored many feminist bills that aimed to further gender equity in our nation, including bills against gender-based pay discrimination, providing contraception to low-income women, assisting rape victims and maintaining the role of women in the armed forces. She also explicitly stated that even if she did not personally believe in abortion, she supported women’s rights to choose, as was reflected in her voting record. Finally, she was instrumental in securing $21 billion for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center’s site.
In 2009, at the beginning of her term as secretary of state, Clinton created the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues to ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. She has travelled to 112 countries, more than any previous U.S. secretary of state, and visited women’s projects, giving influential speeches on gender equality that gave rise to women’s empowerment movements. She has promoted gender equality in countries where women are notoriously oppressed and has since rallied tirelessly for the ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women. In her tenure as secretary, Hillary has not only furthered women’s equality and women’s rights globally but also handled foreign crises with aplomb. This was exemplified when she urged free and fair elections in Egypt in an effort to encourage democracy in the Middle East and earned the respect of many world leaders.
I am ecstatic that my question to Clinton ignited many other urgent political questions in regard to women’s representation and equality in America and whether Clinton was fit to represent male and female constituents. It is evident that gender inequality is still one the United States’ most pressing issues, and Hillary Clinton has proven that she can lead our nation in the right direction by focusing on the right issues. Regardless of her 2016 decision, it’s inarguable that the United States needs more female leaders. But I can’t help but eagerly await Hillary’s answer to my question, and I sure hope she gives me a call saying she’s going to run to represent women in the United States as their future president.
Vrinda Agarwal is a junior at UC Berkeley.