Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gender in 2008

If there are racists in the Democratic party, there are chauvinists within it too. Liberals are reluctant to concede this, but this nomination battle has forced the party of identity politics to confront its demons. Politics is about trade-offs and the Democratic party was placed in the unenviable position of picking either an African-American or a woman; even a "dream ticket" will not occlude the electoral choice that was ultimately made.

So, all things equal (and I concede this is a huge cateris paribus) a slim majority of today's Democrats will sooner have an African-American than a woman in the White House. Yes, Obama supporters will argue that Hillary Clinton is, independent of the fact that she is a woman, simply unlikeable - but this observation is itself endogenous to the claim I am making. This is the famous double-bind that all women leaving the private sphere to enter public life must face: they must either be strong and unlikeable (like Margaret Thatcher) or weak and likeable (like Laura Bush).

Is it fair, however, to suggest that the Democratic electorate is less racist than it is sexist? No, that conclusion would be going too far. But I will say that the institution of the American presidency is more gendered than it is raced. The presidency was intended to be a place for "energy," as the Federalist Papers put it; many of it greatest occupants have been generals and military heroes. The American presidency has been a preeminently masculine office, and I believe that time will reveal that we will sooner have a racial minority president than we would have a woman president.

Consider this: if Hillary were to become president, she would be addressed as "Madam President" and the country would be groping for an appropriate term for Bill (First Spouse?) These linguistic fumblings suggest the dramatic reconceptualization of the office that a woman president would entail. Imagine a commander-in-chief who would not, herself, be subject to the selective service but who would be ordering the generals around. It should come as no surprise than, and much to the chagrin of many feminists, that Hillary Clinton campaigned as a man for a masculine office from day one. She was merely following in the footsteps of Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher. By the way, even this strategy was another incarnation of the double-bind that she had to bear as a woman seeking a spot in a man's world.

So when Bill and Hillary Clinton were talking about the gender bias of the media this week they were both wrong in pinning the blame squarely on the media but right in noticing that this country as a whole is not as ready for a woman commander-in-chief than it is for an African-American president.

No comments: