A Female President and the Power of Symbolism: A Response to Amy Schiller

A Female President and the Power of Symbolism: A Response to Amy Schiller

A Female President and the Power of Symbolism: A Response to Amy Schiller

I don’t have simplistic fantasies about being rescued from oppression by figureheads alone. But I also know that women and people of color are a threat to the status quo.


Voters at a voting booth
Editor’s Note: This piece was first published at The Negress. You can find Erica Brazelton on Twitter at @ericabrazelton.

In recent piece titled “The Feminist Case Against A Woman President,” Amy Schiller critiques Nation columnist Jessica Valenti for proposing that she would vote for a female president in 2016. In her piece, “Why I’m Voting For Her,” Valenti essentially said that she was “fed up” with the endless cycle of sexism and thought electing America’s first woman—while acknowledging that women candidates do not guarantee feminist outcome—would be a “hopeful reminder of progress made.”

Schiller’s response essentially argued three points:

1.) Electing a woman as president (for example, Hillary Clinton) would still be a simplistic solution to sexism, as well as an empty symbolic gesture.

2.) That a female president isn’t actually needed for feminist progress because its gains have mostly been realized (using the backlash around Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments as evidence of said gains.)

3.) That a woman in office would do no more to combat sexism than Barack Obama’s presidency has done to combat racism, conveniently quoting Frederick C. Harris as saying:

“…Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting…when it comes to the Obama presidency and black America, symbols and substance have too often been assumed to be one and the same.”

Okay. So many problems here.

For one, Schiller largely trivialized the importance of symbolism and visibility.

Symbolism matters. In a country with very specific controlling images and historical connotations that attach themselves to certain bodies, seeing said bodies in spaces not originally reserved for them matters. Seeing someone who looks like you grasp forbidden kinds of power and provide a schematic reference for possibility, matters. The concept of fictive kinship that creates a sense of pride when one of Us has Made It, matters.

Visibility is also an extremely powerful concept. In a culture that sees marginalized people only through peep shows of white supremacist, patriarchal perspectives—that are always obscured through bias—lack of full recognition becomes a marker of second-class citizenship.

For marginalized bodies to enter public spaces and demand visibility not filtered through oppressive gazes—to be seen in any autonomous way at all, matters.

But here’s what also matters:

Barack Obama as the president of the United States has been one of the most vivid confirmations of racism in a post–Jim Crow America.

Folks usually critique Obama for his reluctance to talk about race, and rightfully so. But we usually neglect to acknowledge that while he may avoid explicit racial discourse, it doesn’t mean that no implicit discourse has been made.

Policy-wise, he has done race work: his Affordable Healthcare Act will reduce health disparities for millions of African-Americans and raise Medicaid eligibility. Almost half of undergraduate Pell Grants under the Obama administration were received by black students—higher than any other group. He also signed the Recovery Act in law, which helped keep a disproportionate number of blacks out of poverty through tax credits, increase in food stamps, and funded re-training for the unemployed.

This is not to say that there aren’t numerous policy and social critiques to be made about Obama (there are) and that his symbolism negates those critiques (it doesn’t) but to simply to suggest that covert race work is race work nonetheless—its impacts still the same.

More than that, Schiller ignores the very overt race talk that has been had around Obama. In less than four years of his first term, Obama’s presence managed to evoke centuries of white anxiety and classic oppressive behaviors:

The perpetual Othering of his biracial/Kenyan origins, “exoticized” to the point of fetishism. The commentary on his Negro “inefficiencies” (by conservative and white liberals) while simultaneously forcing him into old stereotypes of black maleness. The assassination attempts, Birtherism, xenophobia, and inexplicable skepticism of his abilities and intelligence. The constant reference to him as “Obama” and refusal to use “president” as an authoritative title-like an eerie homage to Jim Crow, when adult black men were referred to as merely “boys.”

Not to mention the media representations of Michelle Obama that, despite her respectability, always sought to reinterpret her as the Sapphire/Mammy/Jezebel tropes of black womanhood.

Before we could only ask the question, “would a black president in America signal post-racialism?” as a hypothetical.

Obama's presidency now gives us a resounding emblematic answer: Hell. No.

And in knowing this, we were able to confront race in a “colorblind” America. It gave the black community an archetype in which to acknowledge, analyze, and vent about racial oppression in a cultural climate that had rendered race invisible.

If a woman is elected president of the United States, the same thing will inevitably happen. We can have an opportunity to confront sexism by bringing it to the surface. We’ll be able to dissect gender roles and patriarchal power dynamics. Evoke talk about the beauty myth, ageism, and the consequences of the male gaze. Analyze female sexuality, madonna-whore complexes, and rape culture. And to examine how these issues manifest differently for LGBT/poor/disabled/women of color—through a lens of instersectionality that is too often abandoned in feminist conversations.

I, like Valenti, don’t have simplistic fantasies about being rescued from oppression by public figureheads and symbolism alone. I don’t cater to the concepts of collectivity that make our individual choices bear representation on the entire group. I don’t expect anyone who shares my identities to carry the burden of social justice on my behalf. And I don’t think a marginalized body in a position of power is inherently progressive.

But I also know that diversity is a threat to the status quo, and that marginalized bodies are (not always, but more likely to) enact policy, discourse, and change that benefit the people who look like them—not because of identity “loyalty,” but because your lived experiences encourage action.

The only people who can truly make the best decisions about matters of oppression are those who actually experience it. After centuries of whites creating the policies that disproportionately affect people of color, doesn’t it account for something when at least a colored body is now making these decisions, regardless of outcome? And after centuries of male paternalism determining what is best for women, won’t it matter that these decisions are enacted by someone that can at least live out its consequences?

Schiller seems to think that minimal instances of collective pushback is sufficient progress, that we should “be happy” with the meager gains we’ve made. That Obama’s inability to eradicate centuries of social injustice within a four-year period is somehow evidence of failure. A failure that will inevitably be used to justify the blocking of more black and brown people from the Oval Office in the future.

Schiller’s assertions that a female president will actually “dampen” feminism seems to suggest that a victim of oppression in spaces of power is inherently dangerous, that it only makes oppression worse. But we can also look at how this language of skepticism also warned our ancestors not to defy their own oppressive strictures—not to vote, enter segregated institutions, run for office, boycott, march, speak too loudly, speak at all. And knowing that we are forever indebted, because they did it anyway.

If you haven’t already, read Jessica Valenti’s column “Why I’m Voting for Her,” and Amy Schiller’s reply, “The Feminist Case Against a Woman President.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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