Is the United States ready for a female president? This query alone contains multitudes… The answer to this question, at face value, is, yes. We have the infrastructure in place to elect any person to the executive office so long as they are a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years of age, that has lived in the US for over 14 years, and who has legitimately participated in an election won via the support of 270 electoral votes.
So yes, technically the United States is ready, or more appropriately, able, to award the presidency to any candidate who fulfills such requirements. The better question is, just because theoretically this could happen, is it feasible, or likely to happen soon? This is why the answer we feel more compelled to give, is “no”. What prevents us from having faith in a woman’s ability to achieve this title, is that a woman, when entering the political arena, faces challenges unmatched by her male counterparts. A female candidate’s ascent towards the office of presidency looks more like an obstacle course– where even the slightest unaccounted-for misstep can throw off progress incalculably– rather than a steep hill, that can simply be overcome through effort or dollars.
This is not just an analogy for analogy’s sake, but an attempt to illustrate how the matrices of power that a female candidate must navigate are inherently more complex than those of a male candidate because just by being a woman, a person is subject to more opportunities for oppression, suppression, and judgment. It is worthy to note that similar qualities of a person that would also complicate their ascent to power and force them to encounter more difficult navigation through “the powers that be '' are their race, religion, or sexuality. Some candidates are forced to endure even greater obstacles as their identity is formed around belonging to more than one of the groups oppressed by systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and lingering puritanical conceptions of sexuality. This theoretical framework for illustrating the ways in which multiple systems of power dynamics intersect is aptly called intersectionality and it was coined by the professor, lawyer, and critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Intersectionality is central to the topic of women in politics because without acknowledging it, we are forced into the problematic throws of tokenism and monolithic thinking. Demonstrative of what happens when intersectionality is left out of politics is the case of Hillary Clinton. For the sake of the argument, putting independent candidates aside, Clinton was the only female candidate running for president in 2016. Harping on this, it was easy for her campaign to adopt the slogan, “I’m with her.” The only “her” it could be referencing was Clinton, plain and simple. However, this implicit association between her/female/woman and Clinton is not neutral.
Hillary Clinton is a white, wealthy, cisgender, Christian, straight woman. She alone cannot represent all women. Equating Hillary with being representative of all womanhood is over simplistic and harmful. This is why it’s ridiculous to insinuate, as many critics did, that women would vote for Hillary just because she was, too, a woman. Many people who identify as women, due to other elements of their identity formation and personal politics could see any other candidate as being in a better position to protect their ideals and better represent them, perhaps an explanation for the appeal of Bernie Sanders.
Personally, this is why I take such issues with election year phrases such as “voting with your vagina,” that were coined only to make a joke of women in politics through ridiculous imagery, and to condense womanhood into a monolithic system. Not even all people who identify as women have this genital makeup… Still, there is a double-edged sword to this piece of the puzzle. Because, although we must acknowledge how the absence of intersectional considerations alienates women who fall into more than one category of systemic oppression, we also must acknowledge how this division is being co-opted strategically by rival (usually male) politicians to keep women fighting with each other instead of joining forces to take down bigger systems that keep them clawing against each other on the bottom rather than climbing on their way to the top.
For this next case study, I will direct attention to Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was a Black female presidential candidate in the 1972 election. Shirley was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, and she represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. Shirley was also a first-generation American, her father was a Guyanese immigrant and mother was a Barbadian immigrant. As a politician, Chisholm was in a unique position because she had the potential to be a favored candidate amongst immigrants, first-generation Americans, women, people of color, and especially Black people and Black women. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Shirley was representative of all of these populations or should be held to the standard of speaking on behalf of any of these groups– that would be tokenism plan and simple. But, it did give voters belonging to such groups the opportunity to see a candidate who shared an element of identity with them. The same could not be said for Richard Nixon, who ultimately won the presidency.
Chisholm should have had the opportunity to run for president just like any other candidate, but instead, her campaign was incredibly difficult and she weathered a lot of discrimination, not only from outsiders and political opponents but also from within the DNC and the male-dominated Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm was held from participating in televised primary debates and was only permitted to make one speech after she herself pursued legal action. Despite these abhorrent setbacks, she entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total votes). Shirley Chisholm should represent more than a story of a woman who fought the hard fight, she shouldn’t become part of a canon of stories of black strife that inspire white audiences to find their Christian charity. She is giving us a mirror, crystal clear, that shows us the faults in our “democracy,” the power systems that corrupt the land of the free.
If your first thought was that 1972 was just “too early for a female president” or” too early for a black female president at that,” I would redirect you to history with a two-pronged answer. First, to remind you of Indira Gandhi (prime minister of India 1966), Golda Meir (prime minister of Israel in 1969), Sirimavo Bandaranaike (prime minister of Sri Lanka/Ceylon 1970). All without mentioning historical queen regnants form the days of yore, household names like Zewditu, Queen Elisabeth, or Mary Tudor. The second prong of the answer to that question is the notion of the ever sliding political scale. It might be confusing to believe this today (well maybe not under the Trump administration that so obviously differs from its previous administration) but the entire political spectrum of the United States in the 1970s was a slide to the left, if you will.
For reference, let's consider the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), a topic that deserves practically its own textbook (or at least a watch of Mrs. America on Hulu, you won’t regret it). The amendment, written to guarantee equal constitutional treatment of all genders, proposed in the 1970s never came into fruition. This is the type of language that we now would immediately consider to be politically divisive, but at the time of its proposal, the legislation seemed like a no-brainer, it was well-supported across party lines and even had presidential approval. However, the ERA was wrecked when the fears of conservative women (really more caused by fear of commies and hippies) was co-opted by the republican party to defeat the amendment and bring “family values” and the alt-right back into the political mainstream.
This mechanism came to shift the political spectrum of the country at large, forever redefining party platforms on issues such as reproductive rights and other gendered issues. It would surprise modern audiences to know that there were once vehemently feminist republican women, working in diverse spaces for non-traditional causes… It was once the powers of patriarchy found the central nerve in a “women’s issue” that they were able to create discord amongst women, deepen the political divide and swing the whole spectrum to the right under Reagan. While women continued to fight for equal rights and on behalf of feminism, they were never able to again gain the traction and prominence they had in the 1970s, their progress had been erased by the 1980s conservatism and they had to start again from square one. Infuriating.
The notion of “progressiveness” that we direct towards the concept of a female president of the US itself, should be laughable. Truly, we are incredibly behind and should be embarrassed. Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872, fifty years prior to the constitutional amendment that gave (some) women the right to vote. Chillingly, of her campaign, Victoria said “I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd to-day will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.” There have been one hundred and forty-eight years between then and now, full of technological advancement, disease eradication, world wars, and still- her words feel eerily contemporaneous as if they could have been spoken on behalf of any woman in today’s political landscape. The political landscape which we’ve inherited was not inevitable, and although some people try to prevent progress under the guise of “but we’ve always done it THIS way,” that is simply untrue.
Yes, the United States has always preserved traditional power structures, but it hasn’t always done this so overtly and unabashedly or unembarrassed. In modern history, Reagan began this trend, pulling religious conservatives from the far wings of the Republican party and into the center. Trump is mimicking this, and this is the effect of Trump-era gaslighting. The very notion from which the slogan Make America Great Again has been drawn– a falsified history, taken straight from the mouth of the Reagan campaign.
Similar to how Reagan’s presidency marks the end of the 60s and 70s radical progressivism, we’ve seen Trump as the bookend to the Obama administration. Now, more than ever, we must be forward-thinking about what we will do to prevent a total recreation of the movement of the political scale. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and so it goes...
We must stop the narrative of women in politics as rarities and stop placing them on a pedestal of progressiveness, it's not something to be celebrated, and this is not making them any more electable. It is inhibiting their ability to be taken seriously because it is essentializing their gender and painting a lens of radicalism that precludes mainstream appeal. We are behind, and the advancement of female candidates, among other underrepresented minorities, can bring us closer to where we should be in the present, but it’s laughable to think it would make us progressive.
By painting women in governmental positions of power, like Justice Ginsburg or AOC as superheroes, we’re patting ourselves on the back for nothing. These women are laudable, but by categorizing them as such, we are stripping them of their humanity and holding them to an impossible standard of mythology and superheroism. This is an effect mirrored by many minority groups, where any person who “rises above their circumstances” is not seen as having been able to overcome systemic oppression but just as “lucky” or “chosen” falsely presenting as if the mechanisms for achieving power are working, rather than making us acknowledge how much that person had to overcome just to get to where they are today, and what they still are forced to endure.
So long as the declaration of independence proclaims “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” we are at issue. From a legal perspective, we are not bound to this document, it isn't legislation, but it sets forth the spirit with which to read our constitution and origin story. If we took its use of the word Men to be gender-neutral, as we’re meant to believe it is being used today, the government cannot legitimately fulfill the promise of deriving its power from the consent of the government when women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and incarcerated people have to jump through hoops to have their voices heard. If we take it at face value, that it is referring only to men, (historically, white land-owning men), we arrive at the same problem of illegitimate leadership, just more directly.
So before you “stand with Her,” call AOC a “boss bitch”, or don a “Notorious RBG” hoodie, consider the mechanisms of power that contribute to our current political landscape. Recognize the pitfalls of whitewashed liberalism and/or white feminism and how these serve as booby traps barring genuine societal advancement.
It is time for women in politics, it has been well-past time, and it is time for women belonging to more than one systematically disadvantaged and or marginalized groups to be able to come to power. These candidates cannot be discounted because they are “sassy,” “unprofessional”, or “uneducated,” these very words when used against women and BIPOC women in particular refer to historical phrenological pseudosciences of the “humors,” “hysteria” and eugenics. For if a male candidate expressed the same fierce emotion, jargon-free campaign speech, or humble background that would cause us to say such things about a woman, we would call the man “assertive”, “in-touch” or “relatable.”
It is an election year, America, and there is no longer time to have a woman in the oval office this cycle, but progress requires action and action requires dedication. In the next four years, and for all the years to come, if we want to strive to form a “more perfect union,” we must diversify our legislative branch and executive positions for our own sake. If the definition of our democracy is “by and for the people,” then the faces of those in power must look more like the faces of those who are affected by power.