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Politics: ceiling unlimited

Models of thought

Hillary Clinton will be judged on her merits, not her gender. But if she’s elected US president it will represent an historic moment.

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Two attendees hug each other at the start of a presidential primary election night rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton June 7 in New York.

Julie Jacobson/AP

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Eight years ago Barack Obama became the first African-American nominee of a major US political party. In July Hillary Clinton will become the first woman to be nominated by a major US party.

Whether Mrs. Clinton can break an even bigger historical barrier – and become the first woman president – remains to be seen. Her challenges in the next few months differ in important ways from those facing Mr. Obama in 2008.

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Then the young Illinois senator could run a campaign of “hope and change” – presenting himself as a Washington outsider who offered a fresh start.

Clinton can’t play that role. Her strengths (and weaknesses) both stem from her long career in public service and include inevitable second-guessing about choices she has made. She has already tried once for the presidency in 2008 and was defeated by Obama. (She then pledged her support to him and served as his secretary of State.)

Now she will campaign for the nation’s top office again.

Her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump have won enthusiastic followings by vowing to shake up the status quo. A Clinton presidency would represent a third consecutive term for one political party (in this case the Democrats). In the last half century voters have left a party in the Oval Office for more than two terms only once (Republican Ronald Reagan followed by Republican George H.W. Bush).

While older women (and men) may be in awe of the prospect of the first woman US president – just as older African-Americans were in awe of Obama’s accomplishment – younger women today seem to be saying “no big deal. We see no glass ceiling.”

But 96 years after women first won the right to vote in the United States a woman has yet to hold its highest office. And although roughly half of voters are women, they make up only 20 percent of those elected to Congress.

The world already has seen a woman prime minister, Golda Meir, bring Israel through the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” enacted tough economic reforms and led her country to victory in the Falklands War. Indira Gandhi holds the title of the first woman to be prime minister of India, the world’s largest democracy (1.25 billion people).

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Today German Chancellor Angela Merkel plays a pivotal role in the future of the European Union. And countries from Liberia to Lithuania, Brazil to Bangladesh, are headed by women.

The US is a latecomer in this arena. In November voters won’t be making a decision based on gender but on who is best suited for the office. But should they choose Clinton in 2016, as they did Obama in 2008, it will represent an equally significant historical landmark.