We’d Like a Woman President But…

My radical women friends have no illusions. They don’t think this presidential race is about a choice between radicals who will work to replace capitalism with participatory economics and imperialism/empire building with a democratic society fostering peace and justice. Yet, it should be historic that a woman is even running, has been favored by the men’s club of elites, has transcended the bashing she got as First Lady, and has survived (sort of) Monicagate—among other villifications. While we appreciate that Obama has been welcomed into the elite fold as well and would celebrate diversifying the long history of white U.S. presidents, many women among my acquaintance (and I suspect others as well) think it’s a lot harder for a woman to get elected than a man of any color. 

In phone calls back and forth to my daughter we agreed that we might never be able to vote for a woman in our lifetimes after this—what woman would want to run and endure a picture of their “vagina” on the front page of a newspaper, as Hillary has done. Another friend who rarely votes, as she, rightly, considers most candidates to be more of the same, said she was brought up short by her young daughter who was very excited about the possibility of a woman president. She and I wondered how we would explain to her when she grew up that (a) we hadn’t voted because Hillary wasn’t the perfect candidate; or (b) we voted for Obama, because, although he wasn’t much different, still he was more electable. Would her daughter point out that his “electability” was exactly the point. Voting for her would be more historic since he was more acceptable. 

As women, no matter what we pursue, we always get that qualifying “but.” We’d like to vote for her, but she’s too dominating. We’d like to have her as a boss, but she’s so annoying. We’d like it if women participated in meetings more, BUT only if they have something worthwhile to say (no intimidation there). We actually had this discussion in our peace and justice group in 1970. There are very few women who haven’t been treated to a host of attempts to define and limit them, regardless of race or class. As an example, once I was reviewed in a feminist newspaper for my performance in a feminist show that I wrote and directed. I was described as too strong (a negative, apparently) and this showed that I had contempt for my other actors, so women shouldn’t bother seeing what at the time was the only feminist show in town. 

It should be no surprise that the politics of race, gender, and class, what some radicals refer to as totalist politics, should hit the big time of presidential campaigns. After all, the race, gender, class arrangement has been handed down to us, an inherited hierarchy of privilege vs. oppression. As we know, in the original formulation, blacks (slaves) were three-fifths a human, voting was determined by full humans (white males) who owned land, and women of all colors were basically property. 

The first rearrangement of that situation came in 1870 when black males won the hierarchy lottery and got to vote (under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, although racism seriously hindered that privilege). After 80 years of struggle, women got the vote in 1920. The result since: 80-plus more years of white male presidents and no female or male/female of color nominees in that entire time—and only one female vice-presidential nominee. 

Until Super Tuesday, the general feeling spun by media outlets was that both Clinton and Obama were very similar in their positions. After Obama’s continued success in the primaries, emails from progressives flew across the web. Suddenly, Obama was being described as progressive, speaking the truth, most likely to end the war in Iraq, and the candidate for change. He was being compared to Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, JFK, and FDR. One column—albeit mainstream—in the NYT sports section explained Obama’s popularity with younger white males by the fact that he played high school basketball (mentioned in his popular book Dreams of My Father). Writes George Vecsey: “Obama probably benefits from the success of black basketball stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and David Robinson. He embodies the confidence of [Tiger] Woods teeing off and the swagger of [Derrick] Jeter swatting a double to right field….” 

In the blink of an eye, Obama was honest Abe Lincoln-like and Clinton was another privileged white person (in some versions, an aspiring male), establishment, centrist-to-right wing to some, a raving feminazi or liberal to others—and audios of her “cackle” and Hillary nutcrackers were doing a booming business. There were no comments from progressives about the fact that they were splitting the African American vote (in the early days), that she was getting the lower income and female over 50 vote and he was getting younger white males and over $50,000 a year wage earners. No mention of her descending from Welsh coal miners, little talk of making history by virtue of her gender—except on NOW and Feminist Majority websites. 

David Sirota expresses the progressive argument for Obama in his article “It’s Also the Congress, Stupid.” He writes: “For voters trying to distinguish between Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Obama (D-IL), the question should be who is more apt to empower a Democratic Congress whose seniority and power rests in the hands of committed progressives…. This means this race is not just about which candidate appears more progressive—but also about which candidate will allow progressives in Congress to be strongest.” 

Michael Lerner writes of “The Obama Phenomenon” in Tikkun that the Obama campaign is more “about us.” He compares the excitement over Obama’s campaign to that of the civil rights, anti-war, women’s and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This excitement says Lerner flowed at rallies and demonstrations at which Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Issac Deutscher, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated their visions.

It’s true that the “yes, we can” Obama parade is inspiring a populist swelling for change, but Margaret Kimberley is critical of the “stampede to Obama” in “Progressives Cave to Obama” (Black Agenda Report), wondering why for progressive organizations like MoveOn, “It doesn’t matter that as a U.S. Senator his votes are the same as Hillary Clinton’s….that he [Obama] parrots the words of Republicans when he speaks of ‘the excesses of the 60s and 70s’.” 

Further echoing the candidate-for-change sentiments, 400 “Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama” presented a statement in January, with accompanying signatures and lots of PR. It stated, among other things, that, “In the coming elections, it is important to remember that war and peace are as much ‘women’s issues’ as are health, the environment, and the achievement of educational and occupational equality. Because we believe that all of these concerns are not only fundamental, but closely intertwined, this Tuesday we will be casting our vote for Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States…. We urgently need a presidential candidate who understands that ‘pre-emptive’ attacks on other countries and the reliance on military force have diminished rather than strengthened our national security. And we urgently need a presidential candidate whose first priority is to address domestic needs. We do not believe Senator Hillary Clinton is that candidate.… We are also moved by the positive tone of the Obama campaign, the tremendous energy it has released across the country….” 

Well, yes, we do urgently need those things, but how Obama became the candidate for peace, health, environment, and educational opportunity is difficult to fathom. Or why progressives involved with electoral politics haven’t fielded a woman or person of color who truly represents those politics.  

Besides, as Bruce Dixon, writing in “Holding Barack Obama Accountable” (Black Agenda Report), points out: “Ironically, Hillary Clinton, also a corporate DLC candidate to the core [as is Obama]…has at least promised to repeal No Child Left Behind…it was Hillary Clinton who broke the corporate taboo by at least mentioning single payer, the workable universal health care system implemented by every other advanced industrial country on earth…” 

Things really heated up when Robin Morgan wrote passionately of her support for Hillary, asserting “Our President, Ourselves.” Morgan asks, “Why should all women not be as justly proud of our womanhood and the centuries, even millennia, of struggle that got us this far, as black Americans, women and men, are justly proud of their struggles?” Laura Flanders, host of RadioNation on Air America, responsed that, “I’d like to believe a female president would be good for the advancement of ‘womanhood’ worldwide. But so far Senator Clinton’s votes have not been good for Iraqi, or Palestinian, or a whole lot of global womanhood. At what cost does one woman prove she’s ready for the White House?” 

Apparently, she needs to do a lot more than the 41 former presidents and the current one have done, as none of them could be considered good for Iraq, Palestine, or global womanhood. 

Flanders faults Clinton for endorsing trade policies that “were encouraging a global sweatshop economy,” for endorsing her husband’s positions, and then concludes: “…so me and my womanhood are rooting for a movement that might someday build for structural change…. Today, with fingers crossed, I’m voting for Barack and Michelle Obama. At least we can call their community organizer’s bluff. Or we can go down—or rise up—trying.” 

I’m not sure how she can vote for Michelle Obama, although it’s interesting that Flanders sees her as a partner in Barack’s political mission. Wasn’t Hillary villified for doing just that during Bill’s years in the White House? And “calling their community organizers’ bluff” seems dubious. Bill Clinton was at one time the candidate of hope and change. Progressives didn’t march on Washington protesting his very unprogressive policies and I can’t see them marching to call the bluff of a first African American president either. 

There’s more. According to Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis, “Having a woman in the White House won’t necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism. Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman—any woman— an attractive proposition, even if it’s just so she can serve as a role model for others who’ll do the job better eventually, it’s ultimately a trap…. I can hear the refrain now. They’ve finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?”  

Are we to assume that an Obama presidency would be more about progressive feminism? Is Jervis saying that we shouldn’t make history by electing a woman because we would have to shut up about equal pay? And where does it say that Hillary as president would be against equal pay? Shouldn’t such concerns make Obama’s presidency subject to the same “whining” about racism? Especially, as Kimberley notes: “Obama has already declared that ‘there is no black America….’” 

Susan Douglas writes in an In These Times article, “Why Women Hate Hillary,” that, “Women don’t trust Hillary. They see her as an opportunist; many feel betrayed by her…. And for many of us feminism did not mean trying to be more like men. It meant challenging patriarchy; trying to bring equity to family life, humanizing the workplace, prioritizing women’s issues in politics, and confronting the dangers of militarism and imperialism. And millions of us fought (and continue to fight) these battles wearing lipstick, skirts, and a smile; the masquerade of femininity we are compelled to don…. Hillary, by contract, seems to want to be more like a man in her demeanor and politics, makes few concessions to the social demands of femininity, and yet seems to be only a partial feminist. She seems above us, exempting herself from compromises women have to make every day, leaving some of the basic tenets of feminism in the dust… In other words, she seems like patriarchy in sheep’s clothing…. We want what feminism began to fight 40 years ago—humanizing deeply patriarchal institutions. And ironically we see candidates like John Edwards, or Barack Obama— men—offering just that. If Hillary Clinton wants to be the first female president, then maybe, just maybe, she should actually run as a woman.”

So Hillary is trying to be tough (while in sheep’s clothing!?), not dealing with lipstick, makeup, skirts, and a smile, therefore not running as a woman. What does that even mean? 

And, in fact, women don’t all seem to hate Hillary. Women under 50 perhaps aren’t as positive, but women over 50 are voting for her in record numbers. At least they have been. Lakshmi Chaudhry writes in “Hillary’s Feminist Problem,” that, “the right wing’s favorite ‘femi-nazi’ now has to contend with Jane Fonda comparing her to ‘a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina’.” Would that be the Jane Fonda who married Ted Turner and quit the movie business because he when he asked  her  to. 

In any case, can we cut through the qualifiers for a second. In the heady politics of the elite, does anyone really believe that Hillary Clinton can’t do a better job than the 42 presidents we’ve had so far? Oops, I forgot all those “buts.” 

There were a few comments in the Internet flurry on the “hierarchy of oppressions” dilemma. In “Young Feminists Vote for the Woman?” blogger Tracee writes: “There is an interesting, though slightly infuriating, argument brewing among feminists. Should feminists vote for the woman ‘just because’ she’s the woman? (As if U.S. Senator or successful attorney are not great qualifications.)…. Or are we judging the candidates on their politics and voting for the best one? Do voters go for Martin Luther King’s dream or Gloria Steinem’s? Most of us who will vote Democratic have embraced both dreams as our own. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that without feminists Obama wouldn’t be a good contender and likewise, without ethnic minorities Clinton wouldn’t be either.” 

Well, yes, but do either of these candidates represent King’s or Steinem’s dreams? Shirley Chisholm came the closest. She ran for president some time ago and I don’t remember any rush of progressive support, but maybe I missed it. 

So what is going on here? Why the public denunciations by feminists; the need to assure folks that we are not single issue knee-jerking politicos? Why the need to romanticize Obama? Is it the lingering hierarchy of oppressions mentioned above? Is it preferences for character, style, and a good speechwriter if we have to endure four to eight years of this person in the White House? Is it a result of the mainstream co-optation of feminism, transforming it from an analysis of patriarchy, sexism, and how it plays out in society to a politics of cultural differences represented by “men are from Mars, women are from Venus?” Is the biggest qualifier really, “We’d like a woman president, but….not if she’s a woman?” 

In the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus formulation,” it’s easy to disguise misogyny by simply saying that, for instance, the culture of the presidency of the U.S. requires Mars-like traits. So we’re not being sexist, it’s just that any woman aspiring to the presidency is, well frankly, trying to switch planets. 

NYT op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff says in “When Women Rule” that the problem lies, “In…the ‘Goldberg paradigm,’ [where] people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman. Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man…. And women seem even more offended by self-promoting females than men are…. An MIT economist, Esther Duflo, looked at India, which has required female leaders in one-third of village councils since the mid-1990s. Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men…. Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected.” 

Of course, it’s always possible that none of these historic firsts mean much. As mainstream op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd writes in “A Flawed Feminist Test”: “I know that the attacks against powerful women can be harsh…. But Hillary is not the best test case for women. We’ll never know how much the backlash is because she’s a woman or because she’s this woman or because of the ick factor of returning to the old Clinton dysfunction.” 

Or perhaps it’s an elite plan to shut down a leftward drift of the population by offering false hope through an elite candidate that finally is not white and male. 

So where does that leave us? For progressives, it seems, some will hope for an Obama presidency that might end the endless wars, a dubious possibility to others of us. For those who want an end to a capitalist, imperialist, undemocratic U.S., we will continue arguing for a different society where race, gender, and class are not contentious issues, but are replaced by solidarity among all people and cultures. 

Catherine for President in 2040

Regarding a woman president, until a hoped for revolution, at some point women in huge numbers (and from all cultures) are going to have to vote as men have voted for centuries: for their gender—without all the qualifiers that obscure the fact that she is as qualified or better qualified than the competitors. Otherwise, we may have to wait until there has first been a male president of every possible ethnicity. Even then the only way a woman might be able to become president is to disguise herself as a man.  

I’ll tell you one thing, should my granddaughter decide to run, and I’m still alive 32 years from now, I’m voting for her and no buts about it.  


Lydia Sargent is a mother of three and a grandmother of six, among other gender related activities.