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Opinion: Why a woman like Nikki Haley could be President of the United States

Opinion by Kara Alaimo

(CNN) — Nikki Haley has made Saturday’s primary in her home state of South Carolina a cornerstone of her ongoing, embattled campaign to be the GOP presidential nominee after losing Iowa and New Hampshire. She almost certainly won’t win the primary and her national prospects look grim, unless one of the many court cases against former President Donald Trump precludes him from nomination or reelection.

But Haley’s fate tied to the trials doesn’t obscure the fact that the first woman to be elected president of the United States is very likely to be someone just like her.

Of course, since the advent of the US presidency, Americans have only elected men to the office (Hillary Clinton won the popular, but not electoral, vote in 2016). In a Pew Survey last year, only a quarter of Americans said it’s very or extremely likely that they’ll see a woman president in their lifetimes.

But there’s reason to think that a conservative woman would have an easier time than a liberal woman clearing this bar. Women who try to lead bump up against many ridiculous and unfair stereotypes, but a big one is that we’re not strong. “Women simply do not fit the archetype of a leader in a country that stakes its superpower status on its military might,” Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders Laura Liswood points out. “Men are presumed to be strong until they show otherwise. Women must prove they have strength.”

One thing that would help Haley overcome this challenge is the fact that she is perceived as a foreign policy hawk. That could give her or another conservative woman an easier time winning votes than a woman who is more progressive. We’ve seen this play out in Europe, where most women leaders are conservative.

It’s easy to see how Republican women who present themselves as embodying conservative social expectations of women — as pragmatic household managers and mothers with traditional family values — would be appealing to conservative (and male) voters in particular. After all, men benefit from maintaining this social order and receiving all this free care that women provide. And women like Haley may have an easier time being perceived as authentic and reasonable when discussing abortion, one of the country’s most explosive issues, than men who will never face the prospect of pregnancy themselves.

Of course, if Haley or another woman were to win the Oval Office, her presence there would help reshape the public’s views of who can be president. That would help future women candidates overcome yet another barrier to winning the presidency: the fact that people seem to perceive women candidates to be less viable and therefore not support them.

For example, in her recent book “Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women,” Cornell philosopher Kate Manne points out that in a 2019 poll, Americans said they would prefer US Sen. Elizabeth Warren, rather than former Vice President Joe Biden, to be president. But Manne argues that “concerns about electability plausibly led some people to give up on Warren prematurely.” Other research concurs that people seem to not support women when they think other people won’t support them — a vicious cycle.

Of course, Haley has made clear she isn’t running to help women advance. “I don’t believe in glass ceilings,” she proclaimed when she announced her candidacy. The idea that it isn’t harder for women to become leaders is simply wrong. Just look at the percent of past presidents who’ve been men (100%), or the percent of Fortune 500 Global companies run by men (over 94%). When she ran for governor of South Carolina, Haley refused to promise to appoint an equal number of women and men to government posts. As governor, she signed into law some of the harshest restrictions on abortion in the country.

(To state the obvious, Haley is still the far better choice for women than her Republican rival. As I’ve said before, Trump is a sexist and a misogynist and has been found liable for sexual abuse.)

But, despite Haley’s poor performance in the polls, there’s reason to think Americans will elect someone like her to be our first woman president. And, even if that future conservative woman candidate similarly refuses to take on the mantle of helping women, she would normalize the idea of a woman president and prove that women are indeed “electable,” which could, in turn, pave the way for more progressive women to win the office in the future.

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