The XX Factor

Hillary Clinton’s Inspiring Words Got Nikki Haley to Run for Office

Nikki Haley at a campaign rally for Marco Rubio on Feb. 19 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Were it not for the encouraging words of Hillary Clinton, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley might have never entered politics. The buzzed-about young conservative, Donald Trump’s pick for United Nations ambassador, told the New York Times’ India Ink blog that she saw Clinton give a university lecture more than a decade ago. Clinton used the platform to encourage women to consider running for office, and Haley felt a pull toward public service.

In the 2012 interview, Haley named what she considered the biggest obstacle to gender equity in politics: the social norms that keep women from entering political races in the first place. When she first considered running against the longest-serving member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives, Haley said, “Everybody was telling me why I shouldn’t run: I was too young, I had small children, I should start at the school board level.” Then, she attended a leadership program at Birmingham University, where Clinton was the keynote speaker.

“The reason I actually ran for office is because of Hillary Clinton,” Haley said. “[Clinton] said that when it comes to women running for office, there will be everybody that tells you why you shouldn’t but that’s all the reasons why we need you to do it, and I walked out of there thinking ‘That’s it. I’m running for office.’ ” What a stunning accomplishment for a politician roundly criticized as uninspiring!

This anecdote highlights the importance of initiatives like She Should Run, which connects women considering running for office with mentors and allows people to send women who’d be great candidates anonymous suggestions to run. In the face of sexual harassment, paltry representation, and bias against women who seek power, it’s easy for a potential female candidate to be convinced that she’s not ready for public office or couldn’t win even if she tried. If lifelong feminist and health care advocate Clinton can convince anti-choice, anti-Obamacare Haley that she’s ready and eligible for state government, imagine the effect Clinton’s encouragement might have on women who admire and share her views.

The Washington Post reports that Clinton’s loss has pushed some young women to plan runs for local office, as they reckon with a sparsely populated Democratic pipeline. If they don’t run and change the face of U.S. politics, the thinking goes, who will? Clarence Thomas’ Senate hearings, marked by an all-male Judiciary Committee’s humiliation of Anita Hill, had a similar effect. Emboldened and infuriated by the overt sexism in Congress, an unprecedented surge of successful female candidates stormed the Senate in the next election cycle.

Now that Clinton’s march toward the first female U.S. presidency has failed, progressives should train their gazes down the ladder of leadership for women who could make great presidents if they only got a fraction of the affirmation that cozily envelops their white male peers.