LONDON — Hillary Clinton got closer than any American woman to the nation’s top job, but her loss this week has thrown a spotlight back on the question: Why has the United States lagged behind so many countries around the world in choosing a female leader?
Tiny Sri Lanka became the first to shatter the political gender barrier more than a half-century ago, when that island nation was known as Ceylon. Its giant neighbor, India, followed a few years later. Since then women have attained top leadership posts — president, prime minister or its equivalent — in more than 70 countries in Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Today, women run two of Europe’s most powerful nations, Angela Merkel in Germany and Theresa May in Britain. So why not the United States?
Historians have offered a range of reasons. Many of the earlier women’s pathways were eased because their husbands or fathers were autocratic or charismatic leaders first. Some were chosen via parliamentary deal-making, not direct elections. Others were tapped as temporary leaders. Some scholars say that European democracies may view women as more suited to high political office because their governments are known for generous social-welfare programs, something that seems maternal. In contrast, the president of the United States is primarily seen as commander in chief, which is a frame more difficult for women to fit into.
“America is still seen as the policeman of the world, the guardian of the world and we still have a very gendered version of what leadership means,” said Laura A. Liswood, secretary general of the United Nations Foundation’s Council of Women World Leaders, a network of current and former female prime ministers and presidents. “Not only do we have to be liked, we also have to be tough.”
Sue Thomas, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that unlike political leadership posts elsewhere, the American presidency “is seen as a very masculine institution that for historical reasons is extremely hard for a female to approach.”
Gender was never far from the surface in the protracted presidential campaign, but experts cautioned against seeing the election as merely a referendum on the idea of a female president.
“It’s hard to build a generalization about women candidates based on Hillary Clinton,” said Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford University. “She is such a special case and unique figure, having been around for so long. Did people vote against her because she was a woman or because her name is Clinton? Of course, it could be both.”
Still, many experts see an underlying bias that has discouraged American women from seeking political office, impeding the flow of potential female presidential candidates. Even after the ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, some states restricted their right to be candidates; Oklahoma did not allow women to seek executive office until 1942. “What we have in the United States is a pipeline problem,” said Kathleen Dolan, chairwoman of the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “Not enough women in the high-visibility, high-credibility offices. Not enough women running for school boards, county councils.”
Shauna Shames, author of “Out of the Running,” a forthcoming book about why relatively few millennials — especially female ones — want to run for office in the United States, said many women are put off by the fund-raising that can eat up to 70 percent of a candidate’s campaign time, and the media scrutiny. Her research showed many women expected to face discrimination in what is still very much seen as a man’s world.
“They think they won’t get a fair shot and so many don’t try,” Ms. Shames said.
Susan J. Carroll, a political science professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, noted that other countries have quotas for the proportion of women who serve in office, which both fills the pipeline and gets voters used to seeing women on ballots. Rwanda, for example, added a 30 percent female quota with other constitutional changes in 2003, and it now has women filling two-thirds of the seats in the lower house — the highest percentage worldwide.
The earliest examples of female leaders in modern politics abroad — as in the United States — derived from family relationships.
Take Sirimavo Bandaranaike, that pioneer leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She got into politics after the assassination of her husband, and not only became the world’s first female head of state in 1960 but also served two more times, from 1970 to 1977 and 1994 to 2000. (She is also the mother of Sri Lanka’s only female president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who served from 1994 to 2005.)
In 1966, Indira Gandhi became the first female prime minister of India, the world’s largest democracy. She was, of course, the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She held the office until 1977 and then again from 1980 to 1984, when she was assassinated by her bodyguards. Four years later in neighboring Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, another daughter of a former prime minister, became the first woman to head a Muslim-majority country.
Mrs. Gandhi’s ascent is widely regarded as a seminal event in the history of women in politics. She displayed toughness in war, ordering the invasion of Pakistan in support of the creation of Bangladesh, and decreed martial law when unrest and charges of corruption threatened to topple her administration.
Another stereotype-defying woman leader was Golda Meir, who was prime minister of Israel when war erupted in 1973. She was known for pithy quotes about women in politics. “Women’s liberation is a just a lot of foolishness,” she once said. “It’s the men who are discriminated against. They can’t bear children.”
Perhaps the best known modern female wartime leader was Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister, who was known as “the Iron Lady.” Europe’s first elected head of government, Mrs. Thatcher ordered Britain’s military into war against Argentina in 1982 over islands that Britain called the Falklands and Argentina the Malvinas.
While Mrs. Thatcher was reviled among Britain’s working classes for her economic austerity and conservatism, she was admired for her tenacity in the Falklands war, which the British won.
Female leaders followed across Europe, including Iceland in 1980, Norway in 1981, Malta in 1982, Lithuania and Ireland in 1990, France in 1991, Poland in 1992, Switzerland and Latvia in 1999, Finland in 2000, Macedonia in 2004, Ukraine and Germany in 2005, Croatia in 2009, Slovakia in 2010, and Denmark in 2011.
In Africa, women have ascended politically as peacemakers. The most prominent example is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in healing that country from civil war wrought by her predecessor.
Although female leaders abroad are no longer rarities, men still far outpace women in politics: 22.8 percent of the world’s parliamentarians were women as of June 2016, according to the United Nations, up from 11.3 percent two decades ago.
Among the 193 member states of the United Nations, 18 women now serve in the top leadership positions. “Executive positions are the hardest for women to crack,” said Ms. Thomas, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. “That’s true in business, true in politics.”
Tuesday’s election not only failed to break the glass ceiling and put a woman in the Oval Office, but it elevated to that throne a man accused of multiple sexual assaults who has made degrading comments about women. Other male leaders, too, are seen as misogynists.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has described women who choose not to have children as “deficient.” President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has joked about rape. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia once tried to intimidate Ms. Merkel with his Labrador retriever.
“We have this curious gender polarization in politics where one part of the world is moving in the direction of female or feminine leadership, and the other part of the world is yearning for macho leadership,” said Niall Ferguson, a historian and senior fellow at Stanford University.