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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