A funny thing happened on the night of November 4, 2008. If America was not quite terrified, it was tense. Opinion polls were tight. Barack Obama went into the day of the election with a lead of less than 10 points over John McCain and Sarah Palin. The past two presidential races had ended with unpredictable and painfully close results.
As the evening wore on and votes in the eastern time zone were tallied, TV anchors soldiered through hours of anxious air time. Sober faces took turns reviewing the salient features of the campaigns: How Obama’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq had helped him beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary; how he stood for access to health insurance whereas McCain preferred talk about the public debt; how no one could settle on an immigration policy; or how George W Bush made himself scarce. Most of all, what a monster of a financial crisis the next president would have on his hands. That week a quarter-million Americans lost their jobs.
And then something miraculous happened. At different minutes on different channels, somewhere between the moment at which Pennsylvania was called for Obama and when he officially won Ohio’s electoral votes. Pairs of anchors did the maths, turned to face one another — silent for a split-second — with a new gleam in their eyes. America elected a black man president! A black man, in the White House! Nothing else mattered. At a grim time, and by far too narrow a margin, democracy triumphed, the better man won, and America found reason to fall back in love with itself.
This week the night of November 8 just might bring a true catastrophe upon America, the likes of which it has never faced. More likely, Hillary Clinton will be elected as the first Madam President-Elect in the history of the United States. In which case the past year, with its immensely dispiriting revelations, can be buried under another roar of self-congratulation. The loud proud message will be: The American ideal of equality has prevailed again. A woman has won.
Thankfully, however, that is no longer a great rarity in most regions of the world: Outside the Arab nations, North America stands alone in having thus far failed to elect a woman as head of government. Does it matter to the lives of ordinary women whether their countries are led by women? American political scientists find that female legislators there have earned a better record of passing Bills, a stronger proportion of them concerning women’s rights, and bringing spending to their districts. That is hardly the same thing, but then there is no better data, if our attention is restricted to America.
Look to Bangladesh however and find that, indeed, by standard indicators of health and education, women’s lot has been improving markedly under female leadership. Likewise in Tamil Nadu, one of several Indian states to elect women as chief ministers. On the other hand, Kerala has done even better in the same indexes, without any women at the top, and Uttar Pradesh does among the worst, despite Mayawati having won the job four times. The less said about Pakistan, despite Benazir Bhutto, the better. These problems are deep and solutions slow; the symbolic value of having a woman at the head of government, South Asia would seem to prove, is less than transformative.
Of course, it has been mentioned — often with condescension — that these women symbolise more than their own womanhood. It was 50 years ago that Indira Gandhi became prime minister, as scion to a dynasty that is running still. An awkward fact about the female heads of government in this part of the world is that they often come to power via the men with whom they are personally associated. When this is noted in the Western press, it is cited as a social failing. A defining feature of patriarchal society ensures that any woman’s status is a reflection of the men who stand above her in the family. And so the careers of these remarkable women can be counted, or discounted, as evidence of a society’s being retrograde. That is not to claim that the example of an Indira or a Benazir is less than inspiring to the girls, women and men who look up to them. But they fall far short of the gold standard, met nowadays by democracies in Europe, East Asia, Africa and South America, which manage to elect women who lack family connections into high office. Within India, Mamata Banerjee may claim such distinction.
Instead, America will be playing catch-up with South Asia. Like hereditary leaders here, Hillary Clinton came equipped with the advantages of her previous stint in the White House, as First Spouse. Bill Clinton has saddled her with plenty of disadvantages too. Many of the attacks she weathered this year have borne marks of sexism, both subtle (her “awful voice”) and not-so-subtle (the deplorables’ slogan of “Trump that bitch”). It is a shame on America that sexual depredations have played such a prominent role in this year’s campaign, ranging from boorishness to casual misogyny and worse.
At times the unfair hurdles put in Hillary’s way have been overstated. Accepting defeat in the Democrats’ primary of 2008, she thrilled some supporters by claiming that they had helped her put “19m cracks in the glass ceiling”. With its implication that sexism was all that kept her from taking the candidacy from Barack Obama, this sounded like America’s least gracious concession of the new century. If the country has any luck left, it will get to watch Donald Trump rant and whine with infinitely less grace on Wednesday.
Alex Travelli is an India correspondent and the Asia news editor for The Economist
The views expressed are personal