Why we need women right at the top

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton is first woman to become presumptive major-party nominee for U.S. president
  • Sophie Walker: It's not enough to have more female politicians. We need female political leaders at the top

Sophie Walker is the leader of the Women's Equality Party. Sophie was elected leader in July 2015, and in January 2016 was voted to represent the party in the London mayoral election. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)This week, I joined a party at the House of Commons to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first petition for women's votes being delivered to Britain's Parliament.

But in that ancient room -- its richly brocaded walls hung with dark portraits of centuries of male power -- there was another buzz. While we celebrated our hard-fought democratic rights, there were cheers, too, for the right of women to lead the democratic process from the very top.
    Hillary Clinton's historic securing of the Democratic presumptive nomination for president is a game-changer. After centuries of glacial progress toward equality for women, Clinton's race to the White House offers a thrilling political alternative. This might be the point at which we get to see -- finally -- what U.S. politics looks like when women see another woman in a position to change their lives.
    Sophie Walker
    In politics, it matters to have the people who represent you look like you. It matters to have the people who look like you govern in a way that understands your experiences and can help you fully participate in society and the economy. Despite this, most political decisions are made by men, based on a male understanding of the world.
    In Britain we set up the Women's Equality Party because we were frustrated by the dearth of women's voices in politics. We had had enough of the absence of women at the top of major businesses and the huge numbers forced into low-paid work or unpaid employment as carers. We were sickened by the ever-rising rate of violence against us; the denigration of our lives in the media and the lowering of our daughters' expectations at school.
    In short, WE carved out a space in politics from which to challenge the other parties' assertion that equality for women was not a political priority.
    What we're doing, like the huge response to Hillary Clinton's nomination, has been termed "identity politics," a phrase that was coined to express political activity founded in the shared experiences of members of certain social groups.
    I think it's very telling that feminist politics is viewed as such rather than just politics -- which should be, but never has been, the shared experience of the whole population.
    But politicians have always succumbed to group-think when it comes to women, while having little understanding of or relationship with that group. We go from daily being addressed as homogenous humans (based on a male understanding of human) to, at election time, being seen as a special interest collective that will only vote according to which option presents the lowest risk.
    It's not enough just to have more female politicians, though that is a vital step toward better representation. We need female political leaders right at the top to create and steer inclusive policymaking. It's worth noting that during the course of her grueling nomination campaign, Hillary Clinton has struggled to attract young women who refuse to vote "gender first" and working-class women who feel she is too privileged to understand their lives.
    And certainly, inclusive politics does not always follow when women lead: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher preferred the company of men in her Cabinet and gave little attention to issues like child care and equal pay, preferring to shore up patriarchal structures. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked in 2013 if she considered herself a feminist, responded she was not, but last year went into a crucial G7 summit on a platform of improving gender equality in the workplace. She has introduced policies around early childhood education, parental leave and better representation of women on boards.
    Clinton's manifesto also promises to fight for paid family leave and affordable child care. Other commitments include working to close the pay gap by promoting pay transparency across the economy, supporting women to fight workplace discrimination, defending women's reproductive rights and confronting violence against women.
    Promisingly, her campaign adds that "Issues that affect women's lives are not just 'women's issues' -- they are family issues, they are economic issues, and they are crucial to our future competitiveness."
    It is no small thing to hear this from someone who may be the next White House resident. The fight for women's equality has always been a fight to show that women's rights are human rights, that we are not a special interest group for consideration once important matters of state have been seen to.
    Inclusive policymaking is one thing; inclusive governing is another. It's often suggested the reason so few women go into politics is because there are so few women there already to inspire and support them. A President Hillary Clinton would be a huge advance as far as the adage "you've got to be it, to see it" goes; her challenge is to encourage and involve black and ethnic minority women by creating a diverse and intersectional leadership team. The numbers of women in her campaign and advisory circles suggest she would likely appoint women to senior jobs in her administration -- a further encouragement for other women to participate.
    America's women won full voting rights in 1920. They have waited nearly a century to be able to vote for a woman president. Let's hope Hillary Clinton can speed up the history of women's equality.