Is Hillary 2016 all about electing a woman?

Story highlights

  • Jennifer Lawless: There's a strong temptation to view Hillary Clinton's candidacy as all about cracking the glass ceiling for women
  • She says the reality is that most people will vote not on gender but on the economy and partisanship

Jennifer L. Lawless is professor of government at American University, where she is also the director of the Women & Politics Institute. She is the lead author of "Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics" (Oxford University Press 2015) and "It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office" (Cambridge University Press 2010). The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Hillary Clinton finally answered the question we've all been asking for years: Will she run for president in 2016? With official news of her candidacy just hours old, one thing is already crystal clear: For the next year and a half, Clinton will be the barometer by which we assess gender equality in the United States. Win or lose, this creates a burden for her that no male candidate will ever have to shoulder.

Just consider the two potential outcomes.
A win would mean a woman in the White House, which is a vital step in the march toward women's full political inclusion. But it's possible that the march will end right there. We'll break our arms patting ourselves on the back for how far we've come. We'll raise the "Mission Accomplished" banner over the women's movement. And we'll call it a day.
    Jennifer Lawless
    Granted, 80% of elected officials throughout the country will still be men. Women will continue to be less likely than men even to consider running for office. And pay inequities, sexual assault and human trafficking will persist as challenges that no one person can solve, no matter how hard Clinton might try. "But we've elected a woman as president," we'll say. Let her take care of it.
    A loss would be even more difficult.
    Clinton will be blamed for running a subpar campaign regardless of how brilliant her strategy is. More generally, her loss would perpetuate the myth that women cannot win big elections, that the electoral environment is rife with bias and discrimination, and that women must be twice as good to get half as far.
    "If Hillary Clinton can't win an election," potential female candidates will ask, "How can I?"

    Flaw in the reasoning

    Extrapolating from one female candidate's experiences to women in politics more broadly is always suspect. But in the case of Clinton, it is particularly flawed for at least two fundamental reasons.
    First, Clinton is no ordinary female presidential candidate, if there is such a thing.
    She began the 2008 race with levels of name recognition that many candidates never achieve, and she is even more well-known today. But that means that she also enters the electoral arena with 23 years of public accomplishments and 23 years of well-publicized baggage. Voters, donors, journalists and pundits all hold clear impressions of Clinton before she ever eats a corn dog in Iowa, steps onto a debate stage in New Hampshire or takes a shot of bourbon in Kentucky.
    Too often, we treat Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary as a referendum on how citizens feel about electing women to positions of political power. In reality, what people knew about Hillary Clinton likely shaped their views of Hillary Clinton. Widespread sexism and misogyny likely did not.
    After all, for decades, women who have run for office have performed just as well as men. They win elections at equal rates and routinely raise comparable amounts of money.
    Do some voters still question women's suitability as leaders? Of course they do. But these attitudes, which have become increasingly rare, do not translate into systematic biases against female candidates.
    Second, presidential politics is, first and foremost, a partisan affair. The D or R in front of the candidates' names -- not the X or Y chromosomes in their DNA -- tells us about how more than 90% of the population will vote. Party polarization has essentially rendered the importance of sex on the campaign trail far less relevant than might otherwise be the case.

    'Iron my shirt"'?

    Now, I'll be the first to predict that by the middle of the week, we will be able to assemble a reel of sexist comments uttered by pundits, and we will be one mouse click away from a steady stream of misogynistic memes, photos and captions that have taken hold on social media. The Clinton campaign will once again have to determine which incidents to address, which to ignore and how to preempt future episodes.
    I don't want to diminish the problems associated with this type of behavior or the fact that it is inappropriate, disrespectful and appalling. And incorporating these concerns into a broad campaign strategy is likely something that male candidates won't need to consider.
    But men yelling "Iron my shirt" at a campaign rally, cable news pundits associating Clinton with their ex-wives outside of probate court and manufacturers producing Hillary Clinton nutcrackers do not change the fact that when it comes to presidential elections, partisanship and the state of the economy tell us almost everything we need to know.
    If Clinton wins the race, it will be because it was a good year for Democrats. And if she loses, it will be because the GOP developed a winning message.
    But how much does any of this really matter? Sure, voters are amenable to electing women. Any Democratic nominee would face the same electoral landscape.
    The problems confronting women in society are just as grave regardless of who occupies the White House. And inferring too much from Hillary Clinton's experiences is a risky endeavor.
    Yet the minute Clinton announced her candidacy, she became the official litmus test for true gender equality in the United States. That's a label that no female candidate should have to wear. Let the burden begin.