To many voters who proudly wore pantsuits to the polls and expected to celebrate history with Hillary Clinton’s election, the likelihood of a woman becoming America’s commander in chief seems more remote than ever.
Clinton’s supporters are struggling to come to terms with the reality that the first female presidential nominee won’t be the one to shatter what she calls the “highest and hardest glass ceiling.” Clinton, looking shell-shocked herself, tried to reassure them that it would only be a matter of time.
“Someday,” Clinton said in her concession speech Wednesday, “someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think.”
But if not Clinton, then who?
“In many ways it’s ironic because people were looking for a change election, and the real change we could have seen in our democracy was not realized,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Not only will the highest office in the land remain out of women’s reach for now, Walsh said, but the number of female members of Congress will remain the same after this election, stalled at 104.
There will be one more woman in the Senate, bringing the total to 21. In the House of Representatives, the number of women will go down by one, to 83.
And there will be fewer female governors nationwide, down to five from six. Only one woman won a gubernatorial contest on Tuesday: incumbent Kate Brown in Oregon.
The relatively small pool of female governors and senators leaves few women well-positioned to run for president, Walsh said.
“I want to believe we are ready to vote for a woman president,” Walsh said. “This seemed like it was the moment, and I’m not sure who’s next in line.”
Presidential candidates could eventually emerge from among the rising stars who did triumph Tuesday.
Democratic Rep.Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost her legs in Iraq, defeated Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois. Democrat Kamala Harris, the multiracial daughter of immigrants, won a Senate seat in California. Voters also elected the first Latina senator, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, in Nevada.
Delaware elected its first woman in either chamber of Congress: Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester, who is black. Voters in Washington state elected the first Indian-American woman to Congress, Democrat Pramila Jayapal.
Democrat Nanette Barragán, a Latina from Southern California, won a seat in Congress. Republican Liz Cheney, in Wyoming, became the first woman elected to the House seat once held by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In all, four more women of color will serve in the next Congress than served in the last.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who campaigned for Clinton, said that while Clinton’s loss was disappointing for many women, it was also motivating. McCaskill still expects to see a woman become president in her lifetime.
“I’m really optimistic on that front,” said McCaskill, who is 63. “I really have seen such progress in terms of women being taken seriously in public service.”
While sexism may have played a role some voters’ rejection of Clinton, McCaskill said, her gender didn’t doom her candidacy.
“I mean, she won the popular vote,” the senator said. “A woman running for president got more votes than the man did. I really do believe that America is ready for a woman president.”
Trump’s approach to women’s rights over the next few years could be very motivating for women, depending on how he handles public policy and his personality, McCaskill said.
“I have been frankly shocked at how many people have reached me over the last 48 hours – women, primarily – asking what can we do, where should we go, who can we help?”
For her part, McCaskill said, she will focus on recruiting more women to run for office in her home state and nationwide. The senator declined, however, to identify any potential presidential candidates from among her fellow female politicians.
“It would be like choosing between my two sisters,” she laughed.
McCaskill said there were a number of qualified women serving alongside her in the Senate and in governorships.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York has built a national profile advocating on behalf of sexual assault victims on campus and in the military. She’s also worked to raise money for female candidates across the country. And at 49, she’s relatively young.
Liberal star Elizabeth Warren, who made her name in the battle to overhaul Wall Street, also is well positioned to run for president. She’s a senator from a large state, Massachusetts, and has developed a strong reputation as a fighter for the working and middle classes.
Some Democrats would love to see first lady Michelle Obama run for president someday, but she says she will not seek any public office.
Republican Nikki Haley, the Indian-American governor of South Carolina, could be a presidential contender. Her leadership after the fatal shooting of black South Carolinians in Charleston last year drew widespread praise and raised her profile nationally.
The star power of Joni Ernst, the up-and-coming conservative senator from Iowa, has been evident on the campaign trail this year as she rallied voters for Trump and other Republicans. A former lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, Ernst’s name frequently pops up as a possible presidential candidate in 2020 or 2024.
Vicky Hartzler, a Republican congresswoman from Missouri, added the name of conservative businesswoman Carly Fiorina to the list. Fiorina lost her bid for the Republican nomination this cycle, but she impressed Hartzler.
“I think there will be opportunities (for a woman to become president) in the future,” Hartzler said, “but most importantly, they need to be chosen on their qualifications as well as their policy solutions that our country is facing.”
Clinton, Hartzler argued, wasn’t unqualified because of her gender but because she’s untrustworthy and her policies would have been disastrous for America.
Walsh, on the other hand, believes Clinton’s gender did play a role in her defeat.
Polls found the majority of voters thought Trump wasn’t qualified, that he didn’t have the right temperament to be president, and yet people voted for him anyway, Walsh said.
“I don’t think everybody who voted for Donald Trump was thinking, ‘I don’t think a woman can do this job,’ but I think there is this subliminal piece: ‘Who do I think can be a leader? What does a leader look like? Who can be president?’ ” Walsh said.
“There is no job that is more masculine than the presidency, going back to George Washington on his white steed,” she said. “And ultimately, when a woman runs for this job, it’s about disrupting the notion about who can lead at the highest level.”