• Cheek

With the weight of the world on her shoulders

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

I recently finished the four-part doco series on Hillary Rodham Clinton (called Hillary and available on SBS on Demand), which means two things. 1. I’ve been crying a lot, and 2. I now know that Hillary’s crushing loss in the 2016 election can be linked directly to her husband’s election campaign in 1992 when the media (and resultantly, a large population of Americans) began hating her. But that story is for another day.

One of the things that struck me most was the rhetoric around her successful Democratic nomination. It wasn’t really about her that day. She was the first woman to ever be nominated as the candidate for a major political party. Her gender was the point of interest, and took centre stage, not just metaphorically. Now whether or not you are a fan of Hillary is, I believe, irrelevant. The night she was successfully selected as the Democratic nominee was historic. Hillary accepted the nomination as a trailblazer with the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Hillary accepts the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Photo by NY Times

Okay, so you don’t like Hillary. Let’s put that aside for a sec. What about Julia Gillard, our first woman Prime Minister. Kamala Harris, the first woman to be Vice President. Margaret Guilfoyle, Australia's first female cabinet minister (who recently passed away). Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to get a medical degree. They all have the shared experience of holding the weight of the world on their shoulders.

The tremendous pressure and scrutiny the first woman is under is astonishing. Again, let’s take Hillary. Once again, the first woman. Currently the only woman. She failed. We’ll put aside the fact she won the popular vote. We’ll even put aside the reason she lost and what or who was responsible. She lost. There’s no question this was a devastating and crushing loss for her personally, it was a loss for the Democrats, a loss for the US. As if that wasn’t enough, it was also a loss for women. When the first woman fails, how will the next succeed.

The speech heard around the world. Photo by The Conversation

When a woman fails, we sometimes don’t get another chance. Not for a while anyway. After Julia Gillard was booted from the top job, what did people say? Well, she was a woman. What did we expect? Her womanhood haunted her at every turn, from the day she answered a media question about who designed her jacket. The media, then the Australian public, taunted her at every chance. She was Julia Gillard, Our First Female Prime Minister. Her legacy. Her decisions were not her own, they represented all women, particularly those who will one day run for PM.

When a woman fails, her womanhood is blamed. When a man fails, he might experience some personal embarrassment. He might lose his job or money or something he loves. But he doesn’t represent all men. In fact, when a man fails, he’s usually replaced by another man. His manhood isn’t deemed relevant. See: Scott Morrison stepping in for Malcolm Turnbull, Anthony Albanese for Kevin Rudd, even Adam Bandt for Richard Di Natale.

Why must we have all of these powerful women, impactful women, incredible women bearing such a weight when they are the first. And not only are they the first, but they are known as the first. It’s their label whether or not they choose it. And most women will lean into it, it’s often easier that way. The label is limiting just as it is inspiring. I won’t play down the power of seeing a woman, the first woman, do anything. I’m fucking here for it and I am grateful and I am inspired every time I see another woman chipping away at the glass ceiling. But it’s just not fair.

It’s not fair that a woman running for the more powerful job in a country, or playing in the first televised sporting match, or being the first to blast into space or perform surgery holds in her hands the future of every woman wanting to follow in her footsteps. Because if they fail, if they lose, if they don’t achieve, the rest of us are pushed back. We’re pushed back, we’re boxed in, and the glass ceiling seems not only thicker than ever, but further away.