The problem with A Female President

When I was a little kid, I eagerly awaited 2016 so I could have my chance at being the first female president. I don’t begrudge Hillary Clinton the fact that she may end up beating me to it — my political ambition has faded over time. But the prospect of Madame President still makes me smile.

I haven’t seen anyone — anyone of real influence, at least — say that voters should support Hillary Clinton solely because she’s a woman. But the concept of A Female President — not specifically President Hillary Clinton, but simply a female president, as in The Importance Of A Female President, or how It’s Time For A Female President — has come up numerous times throughout election season in support of Clinton’s candidacy, and that’s just not a good choice of selling points. From a marketing standpoint. I say all of this not as someone with a specific political preference (I do have a candidate of choice, and it’s hardly a secret, but it’s inconsequential for current purposes) but as someone who deals in message strategy for a living, and who can tell when a value proposition isn’t going to get the job done.

Here’s where the weakness comes in:

1. Too many counterexamples. Once upon a time, when the Democratic Party was the only party of the Big Two to have the oves to try to run a woman for president, this could have been a more compelling argument. But with the past few years bringing us the specters of Vice President Sarah Palin, President Michele Bachmann, and President Carly Fiorina, “We need a woman in the White House” requires a little more qualification, and an asterisk and fine print really take a lot of impact out of a marketing message.

2. Too much progress. Which is a nice problem to have, to be sure. Women are being elected to Congress in record numbers. Contraception coverage is (almost) guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. VAWA was reauthorized with provisions for same-sex couples. There’s less of a sense of urgency that a woman is the only possible president to see that women’s needs are attended to. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great distance to go, or that the rights women have fought for for decades aren’t under continuous attack — Madeleine Albright wasn’t wrong when she said that “the story is not over” and “it’s not done.” That “record number” of women in Congress make up all of 19.35 percent, those contraceptives aren’t necessarily covered if your employer thinks that Jesus doesn’t like them, new abortion restrictions are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, the Equal Rights Amendment — which turns a venerable 93 this year — remains unpassed, and the list goes on. Still, it’s hard to make the argument, particularly to younger voters, that progress can only be made with a woman in the White House when it’s currently being made, at some level, without one.

3. It’s not an instant, or even steadily gradual, fix. Despite progress made in the U.S. during Barack Obama’s tenure, his election didn’t abruptly make life a bed of roses for black people on January 20, 2009. Far from it. (This is absolutely not me blaming President Obama for police brutality, economic disparity, or other artifacts of institutional racism. In no way is any of that his fault. It’s an observation. Don’t get any ideas.) The election of a female president will not make life auto-swell for women. Issues of public policy will still have to be dealt with through the same channels, and issues of sexism will still have to be dealt with the same way we’ve been dealing with them. Not forever, hopefully, but at least for the near future.

4. The first female president doesn’t get to be just the president. She also gets to be held as an avatar of all women. Our country’s first female president is going to be subject to much closer scrutiny and higher standards than her male counterparts, and if anything goes wrong during her administration — the economy tanks, we get stuck in another war, she makes a questionable Supreme Court nod — the reaction from numerous, influential sides is going to be, “Well, that’s what you get for putting a [misogynist slur redacted] in the White House.” It burns like fire to acknowledge this, and it’s completely unfair, but a female president has to be overcapable and overqualified, because she won’t be allowed ownership of her own failures. Some candidates are up for it; others aren’t. It only works if they’re considered on their individual merits.

5. It reinforces the stereotype that women are only voting for Clinton because she’s a woman. Which is an insulting one, but it exists. And emphasizing The Importance Of A Female President gives the impression that Clinton’s gender, rather than her qualifications, is the primary selling point of her campaign.

A Female President doesn’t work because voters don’t vote for presidents — they vote for candidates. And even without intending The Importance Of A Female President to dictate voters’ decisions, simply deploying it to influence their decisions is a bad idea, because at base it lacks relevance and uniqueness. My recommendation to Clinton campaign staff and supporters is to set aside any A Female President messaging (intentional or unintentional) entirely in favor of something equally catchy and evocative but less generic — her current campaign lacks strong branding, and there’s plenty of room that she isn’t taking to plant her flag on a number of different policy positions and personal qualifications (even including ones derived from her gender). It is a risk to expect voters to make informed decisions based on policy and accomplishments in a race already rife with sexism — from the beginning, Clinton has been getting as much criticism for her fashion choices and tone of voice as anything else. But it’s a measured risk, and with the right language and framing, I think it’s still worth a shot.

(That’ll be $750, please.)


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23 comments for “The problem with A Female President

  1. HowIsBabbyFormed
    February 16, 2016 at 11:23 am

    So you’re saying that female president needs to be the subtext, not the maintext, because America is super sexist, and only bad things can come from drawing attention to your political identity as a woman. Makes sense to me.

    K-Pop group Girl’s Day has a song called “Female President”, which I think displays the problem society has with the concept in a fun and bouncy way.

    • February 16, 2016 at 1:07 pm

      So you’re saying that female president needs to be the subtext, not the maintext, because America is super sexist, and only bad things can come from drawing attention to your political identity as a woman.

      No, not really. I’m saying there’s a difference between a female president, in the sense of President Hillary Clinton being a woman, and A Female President, in the sense of “it’s time for A Female President” and “A Female President would be a revolution” and “we need to elect A Female President.” If Clinton is elected, it should be because she would be a good president, not a female one. Alternately, even if it were, in fact, Time For A Female President, that doesn’t mean that Clinton would necessarily be the best one. There’s no reason to downplay Clinton’s qualities and qualifications that are related to/derived from her being a woman, because those are hers; they just need to stay away from the generic Importance Of A Female President messaging, since it’s influenced by so many things outside of her control.

      • HowIsBabbyFormed
        February 16, 2016 at 2:49 pm

        I think being female would be part of what make Clinton a good president. Is that too feminist of me? Is it misandry?

      • ludlow22
        February 17, 2016 at 2:33 am

        I think being female would be part of what make Clinton a good president. Is that too feminist of me?

        Are you just congenitally incapable of engaging with other commentators/authors in good faith?

      • Wordwizard
        February 17, 2016 at 2:57 am

        HowIsBabbyFormed + ludlow22
        Yes, it sounds like misandry.
        Could you two please play nicely?
        I think I see the need for a giraffe or two. Maybe. Though I hate to be the one to say it. Or I could be wrong.

      • February 17, 2016 at 10:19 am

        HowIsBabbyFormed, ludlow22, seriously. It’s getting old. Please try to keep the sniping to a minimum and just discuss the discussion.

    • Linda Childs
      February 23, 2016 at 5:12 am

      Having a women President would be fantastic, revolutionary and bold but Hillary Clinton is not the one who should be carrying the feminine torch or representing women because she has “NO GIRL POWER”.

      Hillary Clinton has too many skeletons in her closet. One of those skeletons was when she failed as Secretary of the State. She ignored the cries for help of those four men who died in Benghazi. She did not helped them when they needed her to step up instead she ignored their cries and they died because of it. This happened when she was Secretary of the State. Imagine her as President of the United States of America?

      Now she is after the Black votes for her new campaign and she thinks she really deserves the Black votes as she deserves the women votes. Hillary Clinton WILL NOT GET MY VOTE, not after her disgusting comments in her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, HILLARY CLINTON USED RACIALLY CODED RHETORIC TO CAST BLACK CHILDREN AS ANIMALS.

      “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

      As a BLACK WOMEN, Hillary Clinton does not fight for me nor does she represent me as a American women. Her goal here is to make her dreams come true which is be the first women President. Hillary Clinton would be the biggest mistake and the worst representation of a women. Hillary Clinton has “No Girl Power” here.

      • Aaliyah
        February 29, 2016 at 10:02 am

        TW: rape

        hillary is also directly responsible for smearing a 12-year-old rape survivor. it was her first case as a criminal defense lawyer, and she did everything she could to ensure that the rapist got away with a light sentence – after already knowing he was guilty. she tampered with the evidence and laughed about it. and she also accused the survivor of lying and exaggerating about what happened to her while fully aware of the evidence that the two men raped her. one perpetrator faced minimal charges and the other one walked away without any charges at all.

        here’s a link, for anyone who wants to read further. hillary is an extremely awful person and she doesn’t deserve any position of power. and she certainly doesn’t have any fucking grounds to say she cares about women. she is nothing but an opportunist who knows how to present herself as a champion of women’s liberation.

      • Wordwizard
        February 29, 2016 at 10:24 am

        Thank you for this valuable information. I am aghast.

  2. February 16, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Re: Clinton as representative.. I said the same thing during Obama’s first campaign.. That he’s going to need to do a good job if we don’t want to hear people talking about why we shouldn’t have put a black guy in the White House.

    the problem with “We need a Female President” is that it doesn’t leave much room for “Do we need THIS female president”

    *speaking as an outsider here.

  3. Wordwizard
    February 16, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    It would be easier to evaluate how K-Pop group Girl’s Day song “Female President” relates to this discussion if there were captions, or lyrics in English.

  4. ludlow22
    February 17, 2016 at 2:37 am

    Yep. Ditto with female CEOs. A society in which CEOs or Presidents are universally (or even disproportionately) male is a society with a serious misogyny problem, but it doesn’t necessary follow that electing/hiring more female politicians/CEOs is a solution, because specific individual women don’t necessarily care about or even support anti-sexist policies (see: Carly Fiorina for both cases). We need to tackle root causes, not try to impose change from the top down.

    That’s not to discount the inspirational value that electing a black/female/gay/etc. president can have; but in terms of actually winning the fight against oppression, it’s of limited value in and of itself. I’d certainly rather have (say) Joe Biden in office than Sarah Palin.

  5. tinfoil hattie
    February 18, 2016 at 12:35 am

    We’ve had 44 men as president. What part of that is NOT about “because they’re men”?

    • February 18, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      I think it might fall under “because they’re men” in the sense that up until very recently, white men were the only people ever even considered for public office. But since they were all running against other white men, they also had to have some kind of differentiator — maybe a stupid or irrelevant one, and maybe something as simplistic as voting along party lines, but something that made voters opt for one candidate over the other(s). So when the candidate is a woman, one question becomes to what extent she wants being-a-woman to be her differentiator. Once upon a time, that was a reasonably strong argument; now that people can say, “Oh, you mean a woman like Carly Fiorina?” it becomes a little more complicated.

  6. Wordwizard
    February 18, 2016 at 1:17 am

    Yep, no women need apply. (Although we’ve had 43 men as President—Grover Cleveland was both #22 and #24 on the list, but still, only one man.)

    Or is there a meaningful difference between “because they’re men” and “because no one would have even considered the possibility of a woman” (until recently)?

  7. February 27, 2016 at 11:14 am

    My oldest granddaughters are 7, 7, and 6.They would run away from home if their mothers were not Hillary supporters. The oldest is already planning her 2044 campaign, the first year all 3 of them are eligible to run. “Grandma, I am losing Maggie. Maggie is not an appropriate name for a president. Margaret Radcliffe is.”

    My grandma was a suffragist, who voted in the first election open to women in 1920.. She would never have expected that her great great granddaughters have never seen a woman president. As an active younger feminist (Redstockings), I never dreamed we would not have a woman president before my daughters were eligible to run (now 42, 40, 37, 33).

    Do you seriously think a 74-year-old man from a small New England state is going to represent women better than Hillary? Too many women seem to believe in taxation without representation.

    I am not advocating supporting a Republican woman. But woman will never achieve political plurality if they not support women as Afro-Americans supported Obama, for example.

    Those who say I want a woman president, but not this woman, are rejected the one superqualified woman who could actually win. It horrifies me to hear young women parroting all the Republican lies and smears against Hillary since 1991.

    We are all misogynists. We are all daughters and sons of the patriarchy. All of human history is not reversed in one generation. Mothers are far more supportive of their daughters than daughters are supportive of their mothers. Today’s generation of women are far more impressed by experts than the experience and wisdom of their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts.

    My 4 daughters supported Obama in 2008, insisting we live in a postfeminist society. Eight children later, they know better and are enthusiastically Hillary supporters

    I am 70, one day younger than the atom bomb. I have five younger brothers and was a feminist since I was 7. We were practicing to receive our first communion. I was outraged the boys were going up first and demanded why of the nun. “Because they are closer to God; they can be priests.”

    Instead of talking to each other, talk to your grandma, mom, and aunts.

    • EG
      February 27, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      Both my grandmothers are dead, and one of them was horrendously abusive scum; even when the latter was alive, I wouldn’t have crossed the street to spit on her if shed been on fire, let alone talk to her or trust her “experience and wisdom.” Age and gender don’t make someone a worthwhile person.

      I talk to my mother and aunts all the time, as well as my agemates. Not one of them has ever talked down to me like you do. Perhaps if you respected younger women and their viewpoints a bit more you’d get the same in return.

      • Pheenobarbidoll
        February 29, 2016 at 3:20 pm

        My grandmother’s just snorted at the whole circus of colonizers fighting to be Head Colonizer of an occupying government.

        I did listen. :)

    • February 28, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      Those who say I want a woman president, but not this woman, are rejected the one superqualified woman who could actually win.

      Superqualified by your standards. For those who feel differently, “I want a woman president, but I’m going to hold out for a good one” is perfectly reasonable.

    • PM
      March 3, 2016 at 10:32 pm

      “Do you seriously think a 74-year-old man from a small New England state is going to represent women better than Hillary? Too many women seem to believe in taxation without representation.”

      Which women are we talking about? These ones? https://votesmart.org/candidate/evaluations/27110/bernie-sanders/68#.VtkBVJwrLIV

      Or these ones?
      https://www.iraqbodycount.org/

      She doesn’t seem to represent this one
      http://www.salon.com/2016/02/25/im_not_a_superpredator_hillary_black_lives_matter_protestors_crash_clinton_south_carolina_fundraiser/

      • Wordwizard
        March 6, 2016 at 11:13 pm

        PM: I couldn’t get the first link to work. Could you please repost with a better one? Thanks.

      • PM
        March 8, 2016 at 8:06 pm

        Hi Wordwizard, this is the best I can do: https://votesmart.org/candidate/evaluations/27110/bernie-sanders/68#.Vt91OpwrLIW

        It worked for me on Safari (on iPhone) and Google Chrome (on PC) so I don’t know what’s up. The link is a list of Sanders’s rating on women’s issues, as decided by women’s groups.

        I took a snip of his most recent ratings (all that I could fit on my screen): http://imgur.com/NSabsQx

  8. Lisa
    March 31, 2016 at 4:54 am

    Re #4 (1st female President will be held to a higher standard): what else is new? 1st African-American President has also been held to a higher standard. (Which no mere human being can meet.) The second female, African-American, etc. President will have an easier time of it. Might as well get the “firsts” over with!

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