We have witnessed history unfold this week as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate for a major US political party. As a woman, an advocate for gender equality, and a “recovering” political animal, I have been moved and inspired. And of course, it’s caused me to reflect on my own experience and views about women in political leadership.
Thirteen years ago I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to run as a candidate for elected office. I grew up believing that politicians had the opportunity and responsibility to make a difference in people’s lives. As a teenager, the walls of my bedroom included photos not only of my favorite actors and bands, but of the political leaders who inspired me. They were all men, because in my experience, they were all men.
My perspective as a candidate in some ways reflected this reality. I didn’t enter politics with a view that a woman leader would be more likely to speak to the issues that mattered most to me. Or that because I was a woman, my priorities or interests would be any different than those of my male colleagues.
But because I was the first woman to serve as a candidate from my party in my district, my gender was an issue. It was an issue in ways that first left me feeling uncomfortable, but ultimately inspired.
I remember squirming when asked whether my candidacy would focus on women’s issues. I responded that women and men care about the same issues—access to quality health care, the environment, a strong and vibrant economy, and an education system that allowed all our children to reach their full potential. I believed then, as I do today, that what matters most is a candidate’s policy position and record. I have never voted for a woman simply because she was a woman. I have voted for the candidates—women and men—whose values, positions, and priorities best reflected my own.
Yet, over the course of my campaign, I also experienced what it meant to be a role model. I will never forget a young woman I met at one of my campaign events. I encouraged her to get involved in politics and told her the story of my own experiences, the people I had met, and the things I had learned about my community through political engagement. I also told her about those posters in my high school bedroom. It was a proud moment when at the end of the night she approached me to ask for a picture that she could post on the wall in her room.
We have long said that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This is as true in politics as it is in business. Yes, having a woman presidential nominee is deeply meaningful and important. But what is most important when it comes to casting a vote—just as it is when appointing a director or business executive—is a candidate’s life experience, record, and performance. We just have to look at the examples of President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau to see male leaders who are self-declared feminists and committed advocates for gender equality. At the end of the day, it is their policies, values, and mindset that matters, not their gender.
And so, as I talk to young women and men, I will celebrate the historic nature of this election. Then I will ask them to consider the records of both candidates on the issues that will have real and meaningful impact on their lives—issues like equal pay, family leave, diversity, inclusion, and economic opportunity. Finally, I will remind them to make their decision, as I always have, not on the basis of gender, but on the basis of their positions and qualifications.