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The true feminist test of a Clinton presidency: how long till the next woman gets in?

Proving that girls can grow up to be president is not the same as proving that any actually will

Remember — we did it first. Former prime minister Kim Campbell is seen in Vancouver in April 2015. Campbell’s four-month tenure in 1993 was the last time a woman got close to the job.

Staff / The Canadian Press

Remember — we did it first. Former prime minister Kim Campbell is seen in Vancouver in April 2015. Campbell’s four-month tenure in 1993 was the last time a woman got close to the job.

Perhaps, like roughly 60 per cent of the U.S. electorate, you view Hillary Clinton … let’s say “unfavourably.”

Perhaps, like Julian Assange, you consider the choice before Americans in November as akin to “asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” You might hate Clinton’s hawkishness, dislike her handling of the email scandal, consider her too centrist, too liberal, or distrust her political motives. You might also be a raging sexist.

Feminism is the undercurrent to this week’s Democratic National Convention. It coloured Bill Clinton’s portrayal of his driven, defiant wife. And it has been personified in Lena Dunham, for millennial women; Meryl Streep, for second-wavers; and Michelle Obama for literally everybody.

According to the DNC, Clinton’s rise is a game-changer for women in American society, too. That was made explicit nowhere more elegantly than in Michelle Obama’s barnburner of a speech, in which she said that Clinton was the kind of leader who keeps putting “those cracks in the highest and hardest glass ceiling until they finally break through, lifting all of us along with her.”

The Obama daughters now “take it for granted” that a woman can be president, Obama said. But can is not the same as will. And women might not all be lifted. At least, not immediately.

History is full of monumental firsts that do not open a floodgate of seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths. Canada hasn’t had a woman prime minister since Kim Campbell in the 1990s. She held the job for a whopping four months. After Margaret Thatcher’s long reign in the U.K., it was another quarter century before Theresa May landed at 10 Downing. When she did, English-language papers could only muster enough imagination to compare her to other women leaders, which left them all drawing Thatcher and Angela Merkel parallels.

In his new Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell charts these yawning gaps between one woman’s advancement and the next to tread in her footprints. He posits that moral licensing —  a term used to describe the way people tend to excuse our general bad behaviour if we’ve done a good deed — could explain the phenomenon: Sexism continues to flourish even in the face of women’s advancements precisely because those advancements allow people to excuse their prejudice. “We must live in an equal society if a woman can be president!” Never mind the reality.

The true, extended test of a Clinton presidency — and American society by extension — would be in how long it takes for another woman to similarly ascend. Every woman who attempts to chart this course will inevitably be and uniformly compared to Clinton. Her successes and failures will be the foil for them all.

In Canada, our concern over never once voting a woman into the PMO in a general election is oddly mute. It’s not much of a burning problem, it would seem, that only 26 per cent of federal MPs are women, a rate that, while abysmal, is marginally better than provincial and municipal levels, which Simon Fraser University researcher Halena Seiferling pegs at 25.7 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively.

Low though they may be, those numbers took decades to build up. A graph produced by the website FiveThirtyEight shows the rise of women in U.S. Congress since 1917, and it has all the gradual elevation of a shallow beach.

Equal Voice, Canada’s non-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women, has decided the best hope may just be to target the politically minded young and aim to reap the benefits decades from now. The group launched a project this summer called Daughters of the Vote, which is recruiting 338 young women to fill the seats in Parliament during a special event next year, when they’ll learn about Canada’s political institutions.

“We’re investing 10, 20 years down the road,” executive director Nancy Peckford told me. “Demystifying the process, helping them identify the number of roles you can play so they never dismiss formal political engagement as a way to make change.”

The real kicker is that 1,500 young women have applied for those 338 spots, — more than the number of candidates in the last election, where women made up only one third. Equal Voice is also aiming for racial diversity, meaning the women they choose should “look like Canada,” Peckford said.

Without such efforts, she added, it could take 90 years to close the gap.

This is “equality” in Canada, and the U.S.: A slow plod toward more women politicians that doesn’t so much as increase your heartbeat, and a history of female leadership that reads as precipitous peaks and valleys.

So, yes, expect a momentous night for Clinton, and feminists may as well enjoy that as much as we can muster. There may not be another chance for a long, long time.

Check out "Nth Wave," Rosemary's new podcast about women and the media. Listen on the show page or on iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.

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