Socialist Worker

Does breaking the glass ceiling liberate women?

Sadie Robinson looks at what difference electing a woman president would have in the fight against sexism

Issue No. 2494

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in January - would electing her benefit women?

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in January - would electing her benefit women? (Pic: Gage Skidmore/flickr)

The race for the US presidency has raised the prospect of a woman becoming leader of the world’s most powerful country for the first time.

Hillary Clinton is fighting to be the Democratic Party candidate in the presidential election. Some argue that a Clinton victory would mark a step forward for women’s rights.

It would certainly be a milestone to have a female US president. But it wouldn’t guarantee improvements for ordinary women.

The relative lack of women in governments reflects the oppression that exists in society. A “glass ceiling” means that the higher up society you go, the fewer women you find.

Struggles by ordinary people have challenged the idea that women should know their place in society. It has forced open spaces that were previously closed.

But the system can accommodate a few women in high-up positions while oppression keeps the rest down. And ultimately their politics and class matter more than their gender.

Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, brought in policies that made working class women’s lives worse.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is a key figure in forcing more austerity on Greece, hitting ordinary women.

Hillary Clinton is an establishment candidate who relies on huge corporate backing to finance her campaign.

She supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and backs welfare cuts. Clinton would not fight to improve the lives of ordinary women if elected.

It would be a far bigger political earthquake if Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a socialist, became US president.

Clinton has attacked Sanders for focusing on inequality and poverty. She argues that it’s “not enough” to “break up the banks”. And she claims making class demands ignores oppression.


In a speech last month she said poverty among black people was not just about “economic inequality” but also “racial equality”.

Of course this is true. But the aim of Clinton’s argument is to weaken Sanders’ class demands in the guise of raising demands about oppression.

Sanders’ policies include increasing benefits, a $15 (£10.60) an hour minimum wage, free tuition for students and fewer people in jail.

These things would make a much bigger difference to the lives of ordinary black people and women in the US than anything Clinton is proposing.

Similar arguments have been heard in Britain. In the Labour leadership contest last year, Yvette Cooper campaigned heavily on the basis that she was a “working mum”.

She presented herself as a defender of women’s rights and claimed she was better placed to understand the problems women face.

But it was far better for working class women that Jeremy Corbyn, not Yvette Cooper, won the election.

Cooper supported the Tories’ benefit cap and attacks on claimants. She refused to stand up to cuts that disproportionately affect women. In contrast Corbyn has spoken out against austerity.

The major advances in women’s lives–from the right to vote to abortion rights–have been won through struggle. This doesn’t make elections irrelevant.

The election of Barack Obama as the first black US president in 2008 made black people feel more confident to make demands on the system.

Corbyn’s election has politicised more people and made those who hate war, racism and neoliberalism feel stronger.

Revolutionaries should use this mood to build struggles that can win real changes and counter the impact of oppression in the here and now.

And we need to build resistance that can build a world where we make oppression history.

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