An Advantage For Older Women in Politics?

We’ve already seen some speculation–part of it spurred by Haley Sweetland Edwards in a Washington Monthly article last year–that Hillary Clinton’s new status as a grandmother could help her “soften” or “humanize” her image. But at the Atlantic, New America Fellow Liz Mundy offers a more general theory that older women have a unique and potentially very powerful position in contemporary politics, reflecting their very positive image in American life generally. HRC is one of quite a few models of this phenomenon:

Lately, a group of prominent 60-somethings—Janet Yellen, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel among them—has begun forging an alternate path: whatever the reason older women were put on this Earth, their example suggests, maybe the time has come for them to run it….

[T]he current cohort of female eminences grises may well herald an era when aging, for women, ceases to be an enemy, and even becomes a friend.

This is not just because today’s older women have more education and experience than any generation of women before them—though they do. It’s also because women, often held back in midlife by domestic responsibilities, are in many ways suited to shift into high gear at a later age than men—to have it all, as the saying goes, by having it at different times.

Yellen became the first female chair of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors when she was 67; Warren, a former Harvard Law professor, established herself as Wall Street’s best-known scourge when she was just shy of 60, then launched a successful run for the U.S. Senate at 62, an age when, as she puts it in her memoir, she should have been “thinking ahead to rocking chairs and retirement plans.” Clinton, of course, has filled her seventh decade with serial moves from presidential candidate to secretary of state and back to candidate. Across the pond, the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde (practically an ingenue at 59), embodies an elegant, European version of prolonged surging, as does German Chancellor Angela Merkel (60)….

In the 1970s, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University conducted a census of women in state legislatures and found that they tended to be in their mid-50s, quite a bit older than their male colleagues. While raising families, many had been active in political volunteering; running for office was a capstone, a “reward for service,” according to Ruth B. Mandel, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. A similar age gap is seen at the congressional level. Today, the median age for women in the U.S. House of Representatives is 59.1, while for men, it is 56.5.

Perhaps having to wait awhile isn’t an entirely bad thing.

This delayed gratification theory may explain the rising number of older women in positions of high status and influence (still a small minority compared to men, of course, though as a class older women have the consolation they are likely to live longer). But how will it “play” politicallly? Does being an older woman really create a political advantage?

It really could, says Mundy, because women in high-level positions are almost always going to seem competent, but can also become likable as they age.

Shelley Correll, a sociology professor who directs Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, [says:] “It does appear to be the case that being senior or being a grandmother does help [women] get past this competence/likability bind,” she says. She points out that this would be the first time we’ve seen such an effect, because “it’s the first generation of women who have started out in the workforce and stayed in it that long.” Fiske, the Princeton psychology professor, also finds this hypothesis persuasive: “It’s really likely that you could combine elder stateswoman with grandmother and get a pretty good combination.”

This is all in addition, of course, to the natural appeal this first wave of powerful older women should have to other older women. It’s long been thought that HRC’s real ace-in-the-hole in a polarized election contest could be a “surge” among women. Given the poor standing of the Democratic Party among seniors at the moment, a “surge” among older women–especially older white women–could be a pretty big deal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.