Twenty years ago no one thought it would be possible.
But after losing the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton — the star of a Rutgers Byrne seminar, "A Woman for President?" — officially entered the 2016 race on Sunday. The former secretary of state, according to a number of national polls, has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination this time around and becoming the first woman president.
"I've come to see this as her destiny," said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics who teaches the seminar. "But I've learned that in electoral politics nothing is inevitable."
The course, composed of a small group of first-year, mostly female students who were just 10 years old when Clinton lost, included a trip to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York where students met and posed for a photograph with the former first lady.
It focuses on the women who came before Clinton, such as Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress who ran for President in 1972, and Geraldine Ferraro, a member of the House of Representatives and the first female vice presidential candidate selected in 1984 to run with Democratic Sen. Walter Mondale. They discuss how Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination also intensified an interest in women’s political roles and how gender affects campaigns, media coverage, voting behavior and leadership.
“This seminar made me understand just how important it is for all of us to have a woman as president,” said Skyler Bolkin who comes from a politically active family. “It’s so exciting because Hillary Clinton has a much greater chance than any other woman now or in the past.”
A number of polls show that millennials like Bolkin want the former New York senator to become the nation’s first female president in 2017. But Nicholas Hansen, a Rutgers political science major doing research under the supervision of Mandel as part of the Aresty Center research project, found that even the most politically active students often don’t know much about her career.
Of the 66 randomly selected Rutgers students who filled out questionnaires, only half knew Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas, 10 percent believed she was the governor of New York and one-third thought she was the speaker of the House of Representatives.“She still is a superstar, something that no one could have imagined 30 years ago,” said Hansen who is doing research along with three other Rutgers students on how instrumental Clinton has been in creating and supporting programs, organizations, and institutions dedicated to advancing women’s leadership.
Mandel says electing a woman president will send an important message that America continues – incrementally but steadily – to make progress towards becoming a truly inclusive democracy.
She thinks there will be greater enthusiasm this time around from young women like those in her class this semester. In 2008, Mandel remembers going to the Iowa Caucus and witnessing two very different scenarios. Enthusiastic young people campaigning for then presidential hopeful Barack Obama sat only a few steps away from a small circle of older woman – Clinton supporters who believed that she would win the Democratic primary and become the first woman president of the United States.
“When she lost in 2008, I didn’t see anyone on the horizon who would take on a national campaign and be viewed seriously as a credible candidate with a realistic chance of gaining a major party nomination and winning the presidency,” said Mandel. “Hillary headed the line of credible, viable candidates, and she also stood at its end. She was the line.”
Karen Kominsky, director of the 2008 Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in New Jersey, and a guest speaker in the class told the students that even though Clinton won the New Jersey Democratic primary by a wide margin, being a woman candidate for a national office is never an easy feat. Women are often held to a different standard and judged more critically than men on everything from their political viewpoint to their personal appearance, she said.
“Electing a woman president will lift us up to a place we don’t even know about,” Kominsky told the class. “It would be so empowering for women and girls and would change my life, my kids’ lives and your life.”
The students in this class believe that a Madam President instead of a Mr. President may help shed more light on gender disparity in the workplace, women’s reproductive rights and child care issues. They believe Clinton will embrace her gender this time around and continue to champion issues that are of special concern to women and children.
“Without a woman in the executive office, it will always remain this negative stigma that a woman cannot handle being president,” said undergraduate Damilola Onifade who is considering majoring in political science. ”It diminishes the equality we speak of as a nation and presents women as good but not good enough.”
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