THE BLOG
10/16/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Women and Electoral Politics: Hillary and the Coming Discussions of Gender

Jemal Countess via Getty Images

Ideology and sincerity aside, everyone running for office in 2014 is in favor of women and the issues women are concerned about. There are historical reasons to cheer all this. American society didn't permit political activity by women until less than 100 years ago, and didn't encourage it until the last 20 years. No society can long prosper when half of its talent is told to stay home.

Some of the electoral manifestations of this new strength are eyebrow-raising. Did New York really need a "Women's Equality Party," or is it a patronizing and politically divisive ploy, as some activists argue? Are women candidates forced into tough-guy posturing to avoid losing male voters, a la Kay Hagen in North Carolina? Will pro-choice women voters support female candidates who are pro-life, like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley or Republican House challenger Ann Marie Buerkle in New York? There will be grist aplenty for the post-election postmortems.

But something is astir in the body politic and the dynamics that are being unleashed will change elections forever. Attitudes about gender, male and female both, are shifting with a rapidity not seen since, well, since the shift in attitudes about gay marriage. The rapid change in public discourse about domestic violence is more than revulsion against a video of football player punching his girlfriend. It's a public demand for the end of a double standard that paralyzed law enforcement and left women without protection for centuries. The gay marriage earthquake may mean the end of another double standard, where sexual orientation was an electoral disqualifier no matter how superb the human qualities of a candidate.

And Hillary's 2016 bid will precipitate all kinds of outbursts by all sides on all kinds of issues. Again, this should be a good thing. But it will also remove taboos from the political process that have so far limited debates about gender and identity in American elections. It's been nigh on impossible for candidates and policymakers to publicly discuss certain gender attributes, whether genetic or social in origin. Consider the overwhelming imbalance of male perpetrators and female victims of domestic violence. If we openly engage in a public discussion of domestic violence as a gender-trait, which it is, what other discussions of gender traits will emerge? There will be no going back when that starts.

American politics has evaded that dynamic largely by ignoring gender per se and discussing "women's issues," such as child care and health care, instead. There was a time when that might have made sense, but I suspect that the coming discourse will go way beyond such careful limitations, and begin to confront the kind of questions about gender that need to be discussed. It will be very lumpy. But it will make the political system better able to address the long-term problems that women and men face in America, and across the world. Imagine an American electoral system where candidates rose or fell solely on the "content of their character," in Dr. King's words. Imagine when linkages between gender and family responsibilities can be openly considered? Imagine when it is not news that the president of Afghanistan mentioned his wife publicly. We will probably get there, and sooner than anyone has previously predicted.