21 October 2016

Why We Had to Wait for the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment for a Woman President

We have certain expectations of our presidents.

They'll go to the right schools.. About half of our presidents graduated from or attended prestigious schools like Harvard (8 did), Yale (5), Princeton (3), Columbia (3), William & Mary (3), or Stanford (1).

After attending these schools, they'll get important jobs like governor (17) or senator (16).

There are exceptions. Johnson used to ask around the table about which schools the folks gathered there had attended before saying, "Hmm. I guess I'm the only Southwest Texas College graduate here." [Thanks for that tidbit Bill Abendroth.] As you might guess, 8 presidents - including George Washington - didn't even graduate from university but none served after 1900. You won't be taken seriously in a presidential election today if your only schooling was at Mesa Community College.

Which brings me to my point. We expect a certain level of accomplishment of the presidential candidates we take seriously but we didn't even let women attempt those accomplishments until recently. We've had no women presidents in part because we haven't let women enter the institutions we expect our candidates to come from.

Yale began to admit women in 1969.
Hillary Rodham started Yale Law School in 1969.

To put that in perspective, Harvard awarded its first degree to a black man in 1870. It did not go coed until 1977, 107 years later.

Given that the graduates of certain prestigious schools have to then go on to get certain prestigious jobs before we generally consider them as serious candidates, it makes perfect sense that we haven't seen a serious woman candidate before Hillary Clinton. She got started on this journey as soon as it was institutionally possible. (And obviously if the country were completely indifferent between men and women, she could have been the Clinton who served from 1993 to 2000. Institutional realities weren't the only obstacle. So were attitudes and expectations.)

Institutional realities matter. It wasn't until 1623 that England passed legislation that gave inventors patent protection and provided an incentive to invest in developing new products. Almost no one had access to patent protection before the 17th century and inventions were rare. By the end of that century the first patent for a steam engine had been approved. In the next century, the Industrial Revolution had begun and incomes began to rise for the first time in thousands of years as hundreds and then thousands began to take advantage of this new institution of patent protection.

Whites held all the records for major league baseball before 1947. It wasn't because blacks couldn't play. It was because blacks weren't allowed to play.  Now, decades into the integration of baseball, 8 of the top 10 career home run hitters are players of color.

Progress depends on two things. One is inventing new institutions, as when the English passed patent law legislation. The other is when you give new groups access to old institutions, like when Major League Baseball let blacks join. Progress follows from creating new institutions and letting more people use them in the same way that it follows from inventing new technology and getting that widely adopted.

Outside of institutions, humans don't accomplish much. Let a person fight a gorilla one on one without any tools and it no contest. Within institutions, able to coordinate, specialize and leverage individual efforts, humans can accomplish a lot. Let 100 gorillas fight 100 humans with access to tools, language, training, planning, and coordination, and it is no contest. (This example of gorillas fighting humans is one that Yuval Noah Harari makes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind.)

Now women have access to the same institutions men do. (This access is running at roughly the same rate in institutions like universities but at a lower rate in institutions like corporate boardrooms.) All this suggests that Hillary Rodham Clinton is just the start of this parade. Those prestigious schools may not have graduated any women before her, but they've graduated hundreds of thousands since. You can be sure that at least a couple will eventually sit in the Oval Office.

Before the rest of that parade comes, in 2020 - the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote - we will have our first woman president. It seems appropriate to commemorate that anniversary by broadening access to this country's most elite institution.

First woman and first man president, pictured 200 years apart.
Hair length and jackets similar but she gets jewelry and he gets ruffles.

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