Mrs. President

Lillie is interning at Third Wave Foundation this summer.

Do we need a female president? Does having a female president matter?

These are two questions that I struggled with last week, when we focused on women in government and politics. When I reflect on these issues, a couple of different levels of complexity emerge in my answers. First, let me just say, yes. We do need a female president. At the very least, having a female president would mean bringing a new perspective to the position. Like many people, I think it is very important that our leaders come from diverse backgrounds, and it is clearly impossible to achieve this goal if we only elect men.

However, to me, the obvious next question is, if we need a female president, which woman should it be? Can it be any woman, regardless of her political views? Does she have to be a feminist? These may seem like obvious questions with straightforward answers, but it gets somewhat confusing for me, especially when women like Sarah Palin claim the title “feminist.” I have relatively liberal political views, especially regarding social issues such as a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, trans health issues and more. So, to use the abortion issue as an example, electing a right wing, anti-choice woman to be president is not appealing to me, even if it means achieving the goal of having a woman in office. I hate to sound judgmental, like I am trying to define how “feminist” other women are, but at the same time, I do not think someone can be anti-choice and a feminist. Thus, I would not support an anti-choice candidate, no matter what their gender is, because having a woman in office is not as important to me as having a president who takes feminist issues seriously and supports the feminist movement.

Thinking about whether having a female national role model matters is an equally tricky issue. On the surface, I think it does matter. As Rebecca Traister writes in her book, Girls Don’t Cry, it was an incredibly significant moment when Sarah Palin immediately turned to pick up her young child on national television after a key debate. While I’m sure this act was partly meant to gain goodwill for Palin, even for a woman who is absolutely not a Palin supporter, Traister writes how that moment was extremely powerful and profound. Having a female president (or better yet, having more women in high profile government positions in general) is essential because it will hopefully broaden Americans’ view of what a powerful person looks like, break down stereotypes about how women lead, and implicitly encourage other young women to view themselves as leaders because having women in power will not be seen as an unusual, unnatural thing.

Even while I see the real effects having a female national role model can have, I still strongly believe that feminism’s goals cannot be achieved only by having feminist women at the top. Rather, change also needs to be come from the common people and the corporate world. Now the question is, how do we make change happen? How can we all bring change to whatever sector or environment we find ourselves in?

5 thoughts on “Mrs. President

  1. I was intrigued by the Sarah Palin example you discussed. After considering the question for some time, I guess my reaction is that media images, very much like paintings and other forms of visual art, are open to a wide range of interpretations. Such interpretations are not immutable, but can change throughout time. I am not sure that I completely convinced of its transformative power.

    I followed that election very closely, precisely because I found the gendered dynamics of it so fascinating. For while there where implicit and explicit critiques of women’s gender identities and roles, we also had different models of manhood that were not so explicitly discussed. I will definitely be reading Ms. Traister’s book!

  2. While you answer “yes” we need a female president, I think you raise two interesting points that temper this reply. First, not all women share the same views therefore it’s hard to say whether a woman president will have the transformative power for all women that one might hope. Rather, as you suggest, having a leader whose views are consistent with those of the voter may be more important than the gender (or ethnicity) of the president. Second, in the example of Sarah Palin, I’m curious how Traister characterized Palin’s action of picking up her young child “powerful and profound”. I found this image exploitive, in that she used her child as a prop for her political gain. I too would like to read Traister’s book.

  3. Your post is thought-provoking; very real. I agree with you and Yvonne about the power of a woman president to elevate the conversation about gender inequality. Coming off the inability of the Obama presidency to really elevate the conversation about racial inequality, I have to say I am not hopeful for societal or structural change in the near future. However, I have to believe that on an interactional level, person to person, that Obama’s election made a difference. So even if one little Black boy believes that the country can see him as president OR EVEN BETTER, if some little White boy believes that he could elect a Black boy as president, Obama’s election has in fact advanced some portion of the mission. It is worth noting that the aspiration (in my example, the aspiration for a little Black boy to be president) was always present. The problem is that beside that aspiration was skepticism about the ability of a racist country to concede.

    Having said that, I love that you’ve acknowledged that of course we need a woman president–again, I agree! Perhaps the Sarah Palin moment chipped away at the professional woman vs. mother debate which will certainly arise for any women president, and maybe that act will be transformative for some little girl somewhere. Maybe not for us right now, but hopefully it will propel some little girl (or little boy to believe in that little girl) in some powerful way and I believe in her power to be transformative.

  4. What if the candidate were pro-choice, but anti-labor? If she supported gay rights, but also far-right military governments in third-world countries? I’m (broadly) describing former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose economic policies harmed an entire generation of working-class women in England. But – she was pro-choice. I’d posit that you have to look at a politician’s total policy platform, then take a hard look at the policies she opposes that you hold dear and evaluate whether there are other protections in place that will protect or advance your causes. In the U.S., that could be a strong Senate, or established, Scalia-proof Supreme Court rulings. In that light, you may find yourself throwing your support in an unlikely direction.

    Good on you for diving into this vexing problem.

  5. Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for your comments! I really appreciate you all thinking through this issue with me. Yvonne, I think you’re right–the image the media produces is up to anyone’s interpretation, and that can have positive and negative effects. Your comment reminded me of a paper I wrote last semester about the Miss America Pageant protest of 1969. During this protest, feminists struggled to assert their message and the image of second wave feminism that they wanted to establish. Unfortunately these women saw firsthand how one can lose control of one’s message when the media is involved, for the women (and the wider feminist movement) became stereo-typed as “bra-burners,” etc. even though they never actually burned bras. I’m not exactly sure what there is to be done about this issue, other than look to a variety of news sources rather than depend on one, and use a critical, “gendered lens” when reviewing news stories and images.

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