U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is silhouetted by a stage light as she speaks at the University of the Western Cape about the U.S.-South Africa partnership, in Cape Town August 8, 2012. Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool
In 2008, I was one of the young feminist whippersnappers who voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries—or as many of my older counterparts called me at the time, a traitor. I didn’t believe there was (as Jen Moseley, my then-colleague at Feministing, put it) a “vagina litmus test.” I wanted to vote for the most feminist candidate, regardless of gender.
Next time around, though, I’m voting for a woman. Not because I believe that the female Democratic candidate (and I think we all have a good idea who that will be) is guaranteed to be the most feminist, but because I’m just too fed up to do anything else. I’ve made a full transition from youthful idealism to jaded orneriness, and my vote will be just as angry as I am.
EMILY’s List has just launched a more optimistic appeal: “Madam President,” a campaign to put the first woman in the White House. Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, said in a statement that enthusiasm for women’s leadership is at historically high levels: “It is clear that this is our time.”
“Americans are not only ready for a woman president, but—this is the best part—they see women’s leadership as a positive,” Schriock told me. “We are in a new time, and I can feel this bubbling everywhere. We’re seeing more women step up and run for office. And we’ve quintupled our size in two years.”
The organization’s polling tells the same story: 90 percent of voters in battleground states would vote for a qualified woman candidate from their party, and 86 percent believe that America is ready to elect a female president. At least some of that sentiment has to come from a place of frustration with the all-male status quo—not just the presidency, but so many places of power. The popular “100 Percent Men” Tumblr, for example, shines a light on those “corners of the world where women have yet to tread”—from the list of the top twenty highest-paid American CEOs to the all-male leadership at companies like T-Mobile. And if the firestorm surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller Lean In is any indication, women aren’t just ready to see more of their gender in power—they’re champing at the bit.
Voting for a woman with the sole purpose of breaking the most important political glass ceiling in the country—possibly the world—does give me pause. The belief that a female politician is inherently more woman-friendly is the same misguided notion that allowed even Sarah Palin—who, as mayor of Wasilla, made women pay for their own rape kits and, as governor of Alaska, cut funding for a shelter for teen moms—to call herself a feminist. And the insistence on putting gender above all other identities often means that white women take the lead. I’ll never forget being told by a representative of a mainstream women’s organization that they were looking for a panelist for an election-related event who “wouldn’t trump race over gender.” I still believe that my 2008 vote was the right one, and that expecting women to vote for a female politician simply because they share the same gender is cynical and shortsighted.
But I’m also absolutely exhausted. Why?
Because campus rapists are being “punished” by research papers, not prison. Because the man in charge of curbing sexual assault in the Air Force was himself charged with sexual battery. Because the leading cause of death for pregnant women is murder by a partner. Because the Obama administration would rather play politics than make emergency contraception available to all women. Because “legitimate rape.”
It’s not that these intractable problems would magically disappear if we had a woman president. But it just might make the relentless sexism easier to bear. Maybe, despite the seemingly endless misogyny and the daily offenses, a female president would be a hopeful reminder of progress made. Because right now, I don’t see any.
It’s no exaggeration to say that feminists have been stuck in the same defensive crouch for decades. We’ve been so busy trying to hold on to the ground already won that imagining a feminist future has been a luxury we haven’t had the time, money or energy for. Maybe the way to kick the movement into forward motion is with a bang: the presidency. Schriock believes that having a female president would cause reverberations around the world, and that when it comes to the power of role models, “sometimes you have to see it to understand.”
“Will it end sexism as we know it?” she adds. “No, but it starts changing the conversation rapidly.”
I don’t have any illusions about women’s “innate goodness” or think that a woman president would transform the United States into a feminist utopia. (Birkenstocks for everyone!) Like most politicians, a woman president could be just another disappointment. So why not a female disappointment? Equal representation of jerks is still equality.
But there is something to be said for the power of figureheads. After Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, a record number of countries posted female ambassadors to the US—some of whom have dubbed this “the Hillary effect.” In 2010, Mozambique’s ambassador to the United States, Amélia Matos Sumbana, told The Washington Post: “Hillary Clinton is so visible. She makes it easier for presidents to pick a woman for Washington.” In the same way, seeing a woman serve as president of the United States could be the proverbial game-changer.
I don’t know that my course of action is the one I’d recommend for others—in many ways, it’s a marker of my dying idealism. But I do know that seeing a woman hold the nation’s highest office would bring me great joy, and that if there’s anything American women need right now, it’s a win.
In February, Ruth Rosen took a look at how far US feminists have come in the last 100 years, and how much further they need to go.