From First Lady to First Woman President? What Firsts Can Mean for Public Policy

By Barbara Perry, co-editor of 42: Inside the Presidency of Bill Clinton

June 27, 2016 was a landmark day for women, with the convergence of the presidential campaign and the U.S. Supreme Court’s final day of its term. Almost at the very moment that Hillary Clinton, wearing the mantle of the presumptive presidential nominee of a major American party, and Senator Elizabeth Warren were debuting their “sister act” in Cincinnati, “the Supremes” were handing down a landmark decision on abortion that would bolster women’s rights across the country.

Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren’s pioneering “sister act” may signal significant shifts in public policy towards women.

The sight of Senator Warren, in a public job interview for vice-presidential candidate, and former Senator and Secretary of State Clinton standing side by side, their arms raised in a previously male-candidate victory pose, was striking. Should a Clinton-Warren ticket materialize, it could generate the kind of excitement among women that John Kennedy, running to be the first Roman Catholic president in 1960, engendered among his co-religionists. Pictures abound of nuns and their Catholic school students lining up to catch a glimpse of JFK barnstorming across the country. In my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, a coed at Ursuline, a Catholic college for women, shouted at a campus rally for the handsome forty-three-year-old Massachusetts senator, “He’s better than Elvis!” My mother loaded my brothers and me into the family car and drove to downtown Louisville to see her new Catholic hero and soon-to-be president John F. Kennedy. She identified with his religion, his war record (my dad was also a World War II vet), and his youth. After eight years of an elderly Eisenhower as president, she was ready to elect the first president born in the twentieth century, just three years before her.

While Kennedy could not cater to Catholics in his public policy for fear of alienating Protestant voters, Hillary Clinton has a long public record of fighting for women’s causes, including the pro-choice agenda.

But while Kennedy could not cater to Catholics in his public policy, especially related to education funding, for fear of alienating Protestant voters, Hillary Clinton has a long public record of fighting for women’s causes, including the pro-choice agenda. Not surprisingly, she tweeted after the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Texas’s limitations on abortion providers, “SCOTUS’s decision is a victory for women in Texas and across America. Safe abortion should be a right—not just on paper, but in reality.” In contrast, Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in an interview last winter that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who undergo abortions. In part, this stark policy difference between the two candidates explains why Trump has trailed Secretary Clinton by an average of nineteen points among women in recent polls, while men typically favor Trump.

In 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan faced a similarly obvious “gender gap.” He tried to attract female voters by announcing that one of his first nominees to the Supreme Court would be a woman. Indeed, one year later, he named the tribunal’s first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. In June 2016 the Court borrowed the test she had developed in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, a quarter-century ago, to invalidate, by a 5:3 vote, a Texas law requiring abortion providers to hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and mandating that women’s health clinics meet the standards applied to surgical facilities. O’Connor had argued in Casey that a state’s regulation of abortion violated a woman’s fundamental right to receive one (as established in Roe v. Wade) if it posed an “undue burden” on her. Though the Court’s nine members included no women when it established the right to abortion in 1973, via Justice Harry Blackmun’s controversial opinion, it was the first woman on the nation’s highest tribunal who protected that right against a conservative onslaught almost twenty years later in Casey.

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Pro-choice and pro-life demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court on June 27, 2016, the day the court ruled on Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. (Flickr user Jordan UhlCreative Commons 2.0)

Hillary Clinton might become the first female American president at a time when her position on women’s rights, which she famously linked to human rights in her 1995 Beijing speech, could not be more clearly in contrast to her opponent’s. And, if the Senate does not act on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, “President Clinton 45,” as she will be labeled, will have the opportunity to add a sixth vote to maintain abortion rights on the Court. Like Justice O’Connor’s appointing president, Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, Mrs. Clinton could shape judicial outcomes for years beyond her White House tenure. Of course, she would hope that those outcomes would match her ideology in a way that O’Connor’s did not always correspond with Reagan’s more conservative views.

Whether an all-female Clinton-Warren ticket develops, Hillary has already recorded “firsts” in having a West Wing office as First Lady and then becoming the first First Lady to run for elective office, serve as U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and her party’s presidential nominee. If January 20, 2017 finds her moving into the Oval Office, she may build on Justice O’Connor’s foundational precedents by serving as the nation’s first female chief executive and in creating new policies to expand gender rights.

80140100876990LBarbara A. Perry is the White Burkett Professor of Ethics and Institutions, Director of Presidential Studies, and Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at UVA’s Miller Center. For an overview of Mrs. Clinton’s precedent-setting tenure as First Lady, see Perry’s chapter in 42: Inside the Presidency of Bill Clinton. You can follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not constitute endorsement by Cornell University Press.







From First Lady to First Woman President? What Firsts Can Mean for Public Policy