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Another Historic First Is Possible in the 2016 Election

ICYMI: The Race for the White House... So Far 3:31

She's the Democratic front-runner and should she win the primaries, Hillary Clinton will be the first woman ever to be nominated for president by one of the major political parties. Americans, for the first time ever, will truly have the chance to put a woman in charge of the country.

"I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States. And the first grandmother as well," Clinton said in her campaign kickoff speech in June, one of many times she has highlighted her potential to make history and break what she has called the "highest, hardest glass ceiling" in America.

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But beyond the former secretary of state's own words, her potential breakthrough hasn't yet emerged as a driving theme in the 2016 campaign. Clinton is a deeply-familiar figure to most Americans, seen more through her husband’s presidency and her own long career in politics than gender. Barack Obama already showed Americans are willing to elect a president who is not a white man. And Clinton, if elected, would be unique only for the United States: India had its first female prime minister in 1966, Israel in 1969 and Great Britain in 1979.

Hillary Clinton Scouting Report: Enter the Heavyweight 2:39

At the same time, as Election Day gets closer, Clinton’s gender will become a bigger factor, leading to a host of questions, including:

  • Will women vote as they traditionally do, based on partisanship and other factors, or will Clinton’s gender affect them? How about men?
  • What would a First Man (particularly Bill Clinton, an ex-president) do on the campaign trail and in office?
  • How will the Republican nominee, who is very likely to be a man, approach debating Clinton?
  • Will Democrats rule out any women as Clinton’s vice-president and will Republicans strongly consider picking a woman if a man is at the top of the GOP ticket?

Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, Sarah Palin ran with John McCain 2008. But a woman at the top of the ticket is new territory, explored often in fictional television shows, but until now largely out of reach in reality and a dynamic not just about Clinton, but how Americans view gender.

And it's already beginning to play out in the campaign's undertones.

Clinton defenders have suggested that much of the negative treatment by the press and Republicans of the former secretary of state is heavily influenced by her gender, and that some of the portrayals of her are simply sexist. Clinton, her defenders argue, is not uniquely ambitious or calculating. She is a successful politician, a job that requires ambition and calculation, they argue.

But millions of women, particularly more conservative-leaning ones, will vote against Clinton, and some of them are already saying that the former secretary of state’s allies are too eager to play the so-called gender card. Clinton, her critics say, is not perceived to be dishonest and untrustworthy because she is a woman, but because of her actions, like using her own e-mail account instead of a government one when secretary of state.

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"She reminded us over and over and over again in that debate that she is an outsider because she would be the first woman" president, said Carly Fiorina, the Republican who is the other woman in the 2016 race, in a recent speech. "Let me start by assuring you that I will never ask for your vote or support because I'm a woman."

Fiorina was referring to the Democratic presidential debate last month, when Clinton referred to her gender when asked, "how would you not be a third term of President Obama?"

PHOTOS - On the Stump: Carly Fiorina's Presidential Campaign

There are likely to be controversial comments about Clinton’s hair and clothing, and then debates about whether that reflects sexism or the superficial coverage of politics in general. (Obama was mocked last year for wearing a tan suit as he discussed how the U.S. would take on ISIS.)

Democrats have for years accused the GOP of waging a “war on women” by opposing more liberal policies on abortion and other issues. The Republicans will be aggressively trying to stop Clinton from becoming president, but they have to avoid having that cast as a war on a very famous woman.

In 2008, during her first presidential run, Clinton largely avoided talking about her gender and making history as the first female president. Obama took the same approach back then, rarely speaking of his race directly.

But the dynamics are different now. Highlighting your personal identity is increasingly seen as a positive thing to do in political culture. Jeb Bush constantly touts his multi-ethnic family and his closeness with America's growing Latino population. In a recent GOP presidential debate, Marco Rubio proudly noted that he speaks Spanish to some Hispanic media outlets.

The CEO Candidate: Carly Fiorina Scouting Report 3:57

A political movement has emerged called “Black Lives Matter," lead by African-Americans. U.S. senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both Democrats, have recently wrote memoirs that emphasized the role of gender in their political careers, particularly barriers it created. Obama, in his second term, has more openly talked about issues of race and racism.

And some of the issues that disproportionately affect women, like child care and parental leave after having a child, are now being talked about by politicians from both parties and of both genders. Obama held a summit at the White House on work-family balance last year, while Vice-President Biden has made reducing the number of sexual assaults on college campuses one of his signature issues.

So Clinton has decided to lean into her gender. During this campaign, the former secretary of state has repeatedly noted, when asked about the rise of candidates with little government experience like Donald Trump, that she is the ultimate outsider: no woman has ever run the United States government. She has made expanded child care and better family leave policies signature parts of her campaign platform. Clinton has emphasized that she considers herself a feminist and allied herself with celebrities like Lena Dunham who use the term proudly.

There is an obvious political reason for Clinton to speak about her gender: women are the key to her being elected president. Women tend to vote more for Democratic candidates, while men favor Republicans. In 2012, while men favored Mitt Romney 52 to 45 percent, Obama won women by a 11-point margin, 55 percent to 44 percent. That gender gap was the largest since the 2000 election.

My politics "are closer to Bernie Sanders," said Gina Glantz, a Democrat who was a senior adviser to the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley (2000) and Howard Dean (2004), in a recent interview. "But I'm 72 years old, and I want there to be a woman president before I die and she is my shot."

But while Clinton's victory would be a major breakthrough and her loss a setback to those seeking a woman in the Oval Office, her campaign is not a referendum on gender in America. If Clinton loses, there will be a number of other factors at play beyond gender: the difficulty of the same party winning a third straight presidential term, President Obama’s unpopularity with much of the electorate, and the complicated legacies of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

If Clinton wins, her path is not easy for other women to follow, either in politics or outside of it. Clinton is exceptionally talented, having graduated from Yale Law School, gotten elected to the U.S. Senate from a state where she had never before lived and won the job of secretary of state despite a rather limited resume on foreign affairs. She also had the benefit of starting her own political career after her husband had been elected president, giving Clinton connections and access most people will never have.

Women, because of both past discrimination and current structures in American society that benefit men, remain well behind in reaching the top of many professions, including politics. Only six of the nation’s 50 governors are women, just 20 of the 100 U.S. senators.

Clinton, win or lose, is already a trailblazer. But the 2016 election is more likely to show how America feels about one woman than the state of women overall.