11/08/2016 20:00 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

Narrow US election battle leaves women in Canada surprised, disappointed

OTTAWA — Expectations of a shattered glass ceiling gave way to shock and disappointment Tuesday as women in Canadian political circles waited for a historic Hillary Clinton election victory that was looking less and less likely.

"I was so confident, you know? A woman president!" Olivia Chow, the former NDP MP from Toronto, said before letting out a big sigh.

"People are not ready for female leaders," Chow said as she thought about why this was happening.

"People that are not doing well are looking for someone to blame and it must be the migrants, it must be the refugees, it must be the latte-drinking city worker," said Chow, who was defeated in the 2015 election after trying to regain the seat she had given up to run unsuccessfully for mayor of Toronto.

"It's both sexist and racist elements being combined — the fear of it all," said Chow, who said she was remaining hopeful, even as the results coming through on TV spun an increasingly disappointing story.

Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, agreed that sexism likely played a role in the result.

"If she doesn't win tonight, clearly a formidable and talented woman with a tremendous campaign team — it makes us wonder if the U.S. electorate was ready for a female president," Peckford said.

"We always thought it would be close. We saw some momentum in the fall that hasn't held. Clearly the voter base for Mr. Trump likely was more faithful and more loyal to him, despite everything, despite all the racism and misogyny.

"It is no doubt a tremendous missed opportunity for the U.S. electorate."

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said before she comes to any conclusions about the significance of a Clinton loss, she needs to know one key piece of information.

"To me, the real issue is: how did women in the United States vote?" Rempel said. "Sometimes gender is one axis out of many."

The election was about overturning the status quo, she added.

"I think there is going to be a lot made about people that don't feel as if their voices were heard in the current political establishment, and you can't negate the validity of those voices."

Maybe so, but that would come as cold comfort to many.

At one election-watching event in Toronto, Elizabeth Littlejohn broke into her boxes of Kleenex. "If a man with 20 years White House experience was running, we would be far in the lead," she lamented.

Clinton had to fight a lot harder — and face "a lot harsher criticism" — because she is a woman, Emily Lukaweski added as she watched the returns at a crowded hotel bar in Toronto.

"I had this argument with someone the other day who said, 'It can't be harder for a woman to get elected than a black man,'" she said. "But look at this today."

Susie Erjavec Parker, who organized an election-watching party in Winnipeg for "nasty women" and "bad hombres" — a nod to insults Trump used in one of the presidential debates — described the mood Tuesday night as one of "nervous trepidation."

"I'm frankly still shocked that it's this close," she said. "It's a shame, because his entire candidacy has overshadowed what should be a historic win for her."

Even if Clinton loses, women can take heart at the campaign and her accomplishments, she added.

"No matter what, she's going to say, like she did in her 2008 concession speech to Obama, 'We got through one glass ceiling, and we're going to get to the next.' And I think no matter what, this generation of young women have seen a woman run for president."

As Canada's first female prime minister, Kim Campbell had been looking forward to seeing the Democratic nominee become the first female U.S president, not only because she thinks she was qualified for the job but because of the powerful message it would have sent about women in leadership positions.

Beyond that feminist goal, though, Campbell was motivated by anxiety over the prospect of a win by Republican candidate Trump, who she views as unqualified, untruthful and undermining democratic institutions in a world where many countries still strive for peace and security.

"I am so appalled that it's even close," Campbell said. "It makes me feel that I don't understand the world anymore. But we are living in a post-fact society, and it's very, very frightening."

Hazel McCallion, the longtime former mayor of Mississauga, Ont., sounded a contrarian note earlier in the day, saying Trump had a positive influence on the campaign.

"I think Trump has made his contribution by shaking the establishment in the United States," she said. "I think it brought forward a lot of people who felt they didn't have a voice or felt they could accomplish anything and I think that has been good."

Other women in Canadian politics also spoke of the sexism and misogyny that will be a legacy of the remarkable 2016 campaign.

"I think that there will be real implications from the divisiveness and the toxicity that we've seen and it's going to take some time to get over that," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Tuesday morning, long before the polls closed.

NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson, her party's critic for the status of women, said Tuesday's outcome will ring all too familiar for many.

"It will be a very discouraging confirmation of what, unfortunately, too many around the world have experienced — that the underqualified man gets promoted over the highly qualified woman."

— With files from Gwen Dambrofsky in Edmonton

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

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