At least one battle in the gender wars is over

Story highlights

  • A 2014 Pew survey found that 75% of Americans feel women and men make equally good leaders
  • And as attitudes toward women have shifted, Clinton has methodically worked to neutralize the issue as well

Washington (CNN)Hillary Clinton's critics offer plenty of reasons why she shouldn't be the next American commander in chief. By and large, being a woman isn't one of them.

Clinton's gender and the historic nature of her candidacy have been at the center of the Democratic nominee's campaign. While her detractors are apt to raise a slew of criticisms that aren't normally leveled at male candidates -- her wardrobe choices, her hair style, the tenor of her voice and laugh, not to mention Donald Trump's accusation that she's playing "the woman card" -- that hasn't been the case when it comes to national security.
    Clinton is surging in the polls going into the homestretch of the campaign, particularly in the crucial battleground states. But less than three months out from Election Day, there's little conversation about a woman potentially leading the most powerful military force in the world.
    A confluence of factors has helped blunt the issue of gender in weighing who will become the next commander in chief. They include the highly unusual nature of this campaign, studied choices Clinton has made in her career, her push to project American power and the example of other female leaders -- both in foreign capitals and on screen.
    Indeed, any debate about Clinton's readiness to head the military has centered on her judgments -- with critics excoriating policies such as her backing intervention in Libya and the Russian reset attempt -- instead of her gender.
    "We've had enough women in public life for long enough in different roles on the international stage that it is less of an issue for many people," said Gayle Tzemmach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who looks at women, leadership and the military. "Gender is seen as secondary to competence."
    That's reflected in the numbers. A 2014 Pew survey found that 75% of Americans feel women and men make equally good leaders. Though one in four said that women have to do more to prove themselves than their male colleagues, a full 73% of them expected to see a female president in their lifetime.
    And as attitudes toward women have shifted, Clinton has methodically worked to neutralize the issue as well. Perhaps anticipating the need to build up a reassuring resume, Clinton chose a seat on the Armed Services Committee upon becoming a New York senator, assiduously courted military figures in that role and took a string of policy stands that have put her on the hawkish side of her party.
    Indeed, progressive Democrats have criticized her vote authorizing the Iraq War, her push for military action in Libya and backing for a Syrian no-fly zone. GOP opponents have piled on, often taking issue with the results of her positions if not their ideological orientation.
    Trump, in a typical example, excoriated Clinton last week in a statement about her foreign policy decisions.
    "Obama-Clinton have single-handedly destabilized the Middle East, handed Iraq, Libya and Syria to ISIS, and allowed our personnel to be slaughtered at Benghazi," Trump wrote. "Then they put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons."
    Trump himself might be one reason Clinton's gender hasn't come up much, as several analysts pointed to his lack of government service and foreign policy experience combined with his unconventional campaign.
    "It's a stark contrast on the merits," Suzanne Nossel, who served in the Clinton State Department, said of the two presidential candidates. "As such, gender has taken a back seat."
    That might also be in part because people have become used to seeing women in positions of power, leading US allies such as Britain, Germany and South Korea. Recent history points to women leaders who haven't shied away from conflict, including Britain's Margaret Thatcher and India's Indira Ghandi.
    And then there are the on-screen examples. "I actually have to give Hollywood some credit" for making the idea of female leadership more familiar, said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Defense. She pointed to powerful women in TV shows such as "House of Cards," "Madame Secretary" and the 2005 series "Commander in Chief."
    Still, women off-screen can face particular challenges in assuming top positions.
    Deborah Gillis, president of Catalyst, a non-profit that promotes women in leadership, said that research shows that while "men are judged on their potential ... very often we see this dynamic where women must be able to demonstrate, 'I've done it before and I'm experienced.' "
    Maybe aware of that, Clinton, the daughter of a Navy petty officer, has steadily built her resume on military and security issues from her earliest days in elected office.
    After swapping the title of first lady for New York senator in 2001, Clinton visited every single military installation in her state and developed good working relationships with generals, according to New York Times journalist's Mark Landler's book, "Alter Egos," which examines the foreign policy differences between President Barack Obama and the woman who would like to succeed him.
    In 2002, the Senate's Democratic leaders approached her with the choice of a seat on the Foreign Affairs or Armed Services committee. She chose the military option. She applied herself to hearings, visited troops in Afghanistan for Thanksgiving and cultivated advisers such as Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Jack Keane.
    "After 9/11, Clinton saw Armed Services as better preparation for her future," Lander wrote. "For a politician looking to home hard-power credentials -- a woman who aspired to be commander in chief -- it was the perfect training ground."
    Clinton's decisions may have been spurred by watching Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, America's first female vice presidential candidate, who ran with Walter Mondale in 1984. Ferraro faced skepticism about her lack of foreign policy and national security experience and questions about whether she was "tough enough."
    "In Clinton's case, the criticisms being launched at her aren't coded in gender language as it was with Ferraro," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He adds that Clinton might have faced the "tough enough" question if "she weren't demonstrably capable."
    It also helps that Clinton's hawkishness on foreign policy issues such as arming Syrian rebels and intervening militarily in Libya is well established.
    She understands that "diplomacy can be effective only if the country is perceived as willing and able to use force if necessary," Michael Morell, a former CIA acting director who has until now stayed out of the political fray, wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier in August backing her over Trump. "She will deliver on the most important duty of a president -- keeping our nation safe."
    He is just one of a string of high-profile national security officials -- many of them Republican -- to endorse her rather than her GOP opponent. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, and Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, have said they're voting for her.
    Retired Gen. John Allen, who headed the international coalition against ISIS for the Obama administration, backs her candidacy and gave an impassioned defense of her leadership and robust worldview at the Democratic National Convention.
    Farkas said that the military might be comfortable with Clinton at the helm -- leading more than 1 million troops stationed at nearly 800 bases around the world, as tallied by the Pentagon's Defense Manpower Data Center -- because of her track record on military issues as a senator and her good working relationship with the military as secretary of state.
    Military personnel are seconded to the State Department, working closely with staff there, and a three-star general accompanies the secretary on all international trips to provide a military perspective on the issues he or she is discussing with foreign leaders. This means Clinton has built relationships with the military at different levels, Farkas said.
    At the top, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has written about being impressed by Clinton's thorough preparation for Situation Room meetings and her toughness -- though he has criticized Clinton for allowing politics to sway her 2006 decision not to support the troop surge in Iraq and for using a private email server for official business while secretary.
    But in his memoir, 'Duty,' Gates said he "found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world."
    "What the military respects most is hard work and smarts, and she has those things," Farkas said. "Whether they agree with her politics or not, if you asked, can we trust her (to be commander in chief), I bet -- to man or woman -- they would say 'absolutely.' "