Did you know that 2016 is the first year when a woman has won the Iowa caucus?
I learned in 2008 how extremely unpleasant it is to write about women in politics during the presidential campaigns when there's only one woman running and all the other candidates are men. Almost everything I said was interpreted to apply to that one woman (and her policies), Hillary Clinton, and not to women in general. And the very same thing is likely to happen this time, too.
Those reactions are somewhat understandable, for a bizarre reason: There are few women in US politics (80% of the US Congress is male, 44 of the 50 state governors are men). But those few women get the limelight much more often than their sparse numbers would suggest. Hillary Clinton, in particular, has lived in the limelight for a quarter century. She is everywhere! She hogs the limelight! She leaves no air for any other female politician!*
She belongs to the political elite. She is married to the political elite. Her name recognition is global. She has already spent eight years in the White House, albeit as the spouse of a president, a role which has always been completely open to women. She has had a political career of her own.
The media and the Republicans have analyzed every move she makes, we all (if old enough) have assessed whether she should have left her womanizing husband or not. We all (if old enough) have read enough about her incredible ambition, her incredible egotism and her incredible coldness. We all (if old enough) can list several policies she has supported which we detest. And of course some of us attribute to her even those policies of her husband she didn't work on.
All samples of size one create tremendous problems of interpretation. Is Hillary treated the way she is because of her own personality or at least partly, because she is a woman in politics? Would an otherwise identical man be treated the same way? There is no way of knowing. We need a bigger sample of women in politics to tease apart the effects of a person's politics and personality from the effects of sexism, whether subconscious or overt.
That's my dilemma. How do I interpret the way Hillary Clinton is treated from a wider feminist angle? What are the lessons we can draw about the treatment of women from watching her experiences?
I'm not sure. But there is one message which is becoming increasingly clear:
Few people care about increasing women's participation in the corridors of power, as leaders in politics, business, religious and educational institutions or the military. Even feminists don't rank women's political participation as a terribly important goal:
Despite those realities, the Post-Kaiser poll reflected feminism’s lack of political will or any visible momentum at the grass-roots level. Asked to choose their “top priorities for improving women’s lives,” 84 percent of respondents selected “reducing domestic violence and sexual assault,” making it the top choice, and 75 percent selected “equal pay for equal work.” Thirty-two percent chose “getting more women elected,” making it the lowest-rated of the 11 available choices.Bolds are mine.
The poll probably shouldn't have asked the respondents to rank top priorities in that way, because deciding that reducing violence is more important than getting more women elected is not the same as saying that getting more women elected is unimportant. Still, my own experience suggests that at least some feminists fail to see why it would be so bad to just leave the top level decision-making to men.
Well, they'd probably see why it might be bad when the problem is expressed in those terms. The more common terms used to describe a powerful female politician would probably include "rich" and "privileged." ** But then of course the vast majority of the men in politics are also rich and privileged, as are the powerful decision-makers in almost all areas of societies.
This is a dilemma for feminists and others who care about social justice: How does one address both the needs of those who suffer the most in the society and the need to change the pattern and power structures of the society itself when the existing society is hierarchical?
Can one goal be achieved without addressing the other goal? How are the two related? For example, is it really the case that getting more women into politics isn't that important? What if getting more women into politics will ultimately make politics more responsive to the needs of the weakest? Or at least more representative of the real-world problems of all the citizens, both women and men?
Michael Moore, the film-maker, has endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential candidacy. This is what he wrote:
My Dear Friends,
When I was a child, they said there was no way this majority-Protestant country of ours would ever elect a Catholic as president. And then John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president.
The next decade, they said America would not elect a president from the Deep South. The last person to do that on his own (not as a v-p) was Zachary Taylor in 1849. And then we elected President Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, they said voters would never elect a president who had been divorced and remarried. Way too religious of a country for that, they said. Welcome, President Ronald Reagan, 1981-89.
They said you could not get elected president if you had not served in the military. No one could remember when someone who hadn’t served had been elected Commander-in-Chief. Or who had confessed to trying (but not inhaling!) Illegal drugs. President Bill Clinton, 1993-2001.
And then finally “they” saId that there’s NO WAY the Democrats were going to win if they nominated a BLACK man for president — a black man whose middle name was Hussein! America was still too racist for that. “Don’t do it!”, people quietly warned each other.
Do you ever wonder why the pundits, the political class, are always so sure that Americans “just aren’t ready” for something — and then they’re always just so wrong? They says these things because they want to protect the status quo. They don’t want the boat rocked. They try to scare the average person into voting against their better judgment.
Guess what comes next?
And now, this year “they” are claiming that there’s no way a “democratic socialist” can get elected President of the United States. That is the main talking point coming now from the Hillary Clinton campaign office.I guess Michael Moore could just be tone-deaf or not care about that 51% of the population whose members are quite used to hearing that they wouldn't be electable yet, what with that gender thing, but of course one day! But if Moore is tone-deaf, so is a sizable percentage of all those I've seen write about the US primaries.
To conclude, let me stress (even though it doesn't work) that this post is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, is not a comparison of Sanders and Clinton, is not about the current or past political positions of either candidate. It's about gender and politics, the invisibility of the vast male dominance in politics and the odd lack of concern about fixing that and changing the system towards greater fairness.
I understand that most voters vote for a bundle of policies, not one single issue, and that a fervent feminist may have good reasons not to vote for Hillary Clinton because of other issues that person prioritizes.
Still, I wish our public conversations would not hide the under-representation of women behind the out-sized publicity one female politician receives.
* I've read this argument several times recently. If you scrape off the surface layers having to do with being an insider and with the party supports for insiders and the elite, what you find is some weird idea that there are maximum quotas for women in American politics, that if one woman takes too much then other women cannot run. That shouldn't be the case, of course.
** And in the US (and other majority-white countries) white, not necessarily in proportion to their percentage domination in the population.
But note that whatever the racial or ethnic group we look at in the US Congress women are clearly under-represented inside it. This is true for black women, for Latinas, for Asian-Americans women and for white women.