June 2008

No more hope for a woman president

By Gail Binkly

Back when my age was in the single digits, I saw an episode of a sitcom that has stayed seared into my mind.

I don’t even remember which show it was — possibly “The Patty Duke Show” — but I remember the story line. A smart girl with glasses caused a ruckus in high school by proclaiming that she wanted to be the first woman president and competing with the top student in school, a boy.

But everything was resolved in the end. The brainy girl took off her glasses, fell in love with the boy, and announced that she no longer wanted to be president, just the wife of a president.

As a girl with thick glasses, whose mother was very smart and also wore glasses, I thought this highly unfair. Why shouldn’t the girl try to be president herself if she wanted to?

This spring, watching the sudden surge of enthusiasm for Barack Obama that swept Hillary Clinton out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, I experienced a sense of déjà vu, as if the absurdity of that old TV episode rankled me anew.

It isn’t that I dislike Obama or embrace Hillary. Both are brilliant and articulate. Hillary has the edge in experience, Obama in charisma. He voted against the Iraq War. And he is perceived, at least, as being more ethical than Clinton, who has made plenty of mistakes in her campaign.

But my uneasiness is rooted in the sense that the Democrats jumped on the Obama bandwagon not because he’s smart, ethical and so on, but because, deep in their guts, they just didn’t want to nominate a woman.

How else to explain it? Sure, their surge toward could be explained by the Democrats’ fascination with the new. Unlike Republicans, who are forgiving of candidates who have failed in key campaigns before (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John McCain), Democrats go gaga for someone new! different! exciting! (George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, now Obama.) One big failure and you’re out of the running forever (Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards).

Still, even though Hillary is familiar as a former First Lady, the fact that she was America’s first serious female presidential candidate ought to have given her a strong novelty factor.

No, what I think happened instead is the Democrats first embraced Hillary because of the newness of her candidacy, and then swiftly turned from her when they were presented with a more palatable but also novel alternative — a young, vibrant male leader.

To put it more bluntly, even the Democrats couldn’t quite stomach the idea of a woman president.

Say what you want about Hillary’s character, it wasn’t those concerns that prompted primary voters to switch to Obama, because nothing terribly new has been revealed about her since she was the front-runner. (And many of the same people who now view her as the anti-Christ think old Bill was a pretty good leader.) Nor is Obama swaying voters because he’s better qualified, because he isn’t. It was Gloria Steinem, I believe, who noted that any 47-yearold woman with Obama’s credentials would have been laughed out of the running early on.

So once again we see that women, no matter how smart, no matter how experienced, just don’t fit our image of “leaders.”

It probably is difficult for white men to understand how deeply the rest of us yearn to see someone “like us” installed in the White House. Blacks want a black, Hispanics would like a Hispanic, and older white women such as myself dream of seeing a woman in the top slot. It’s shallow, certainly, to let gender and race sway our decisions about the presidency. But until the “white-males-only” barrier has been broken, the rest of us will feel this desperate longing.

My pro-Obama friends say, “We want a woman, too, just not Hillary!” Maybe so. But, like her or not, Hillary was the best shot. As Marie Cocco noted in the Washington Post recently, the United States is unlikely to have another serious female presidential candidate for at least a generation. People scoff when I say I won’t see a woman president in my lifetime, but who is waiting in the wings?

The constraints on a female candidate are tremendous, far more restrictive than on a male candidate of any color. She must be attractive, but not too attractive (a sexy woman would not be taken seriously). Thus, she must be past menopause — but not too far past menopause, because then she would be viewed as old and feeble. No one is going to put a 72-year-old woman in the White House, though a 72-year-old man currently has a fair shot at it.

She must be politically conservative or centrist — a liberal woman would be mocked as tender-hearted and weak. (And forget any woman from California — same reason.) She must be forceful but not strident. Men can shout and be labeled “inspirational,” but a woman who shouts is overly emotional (hysterical).

Her voice must be low but not too low, her laugh perfectly pleasant. (MSNBC correspondent Tucker Carlson chuckled over a gift of a Hillary pen that mocks her laugh — was Obama ever scrutinized for the way he laughs?)

Think the prejudice against a black or Hispanic as president is equally strong? Then remember this: Men of color received the right to vote in 1870. It was another 50 years before women got the same right.

MSNBC “journalist” Chris Matthews, early in the campaign, blathered on about how the Democrats needed a “big, beefy” candidate as an alternative to Hillary. Would it have been acceptable to suggest a “pale, Caucasian” alternative to Obama? What is physical appearance supposed to have to do with it, anyway?

If you still don’t believe sexism played some part in Hillary’s demise, consider this. A group exists called “Citizens United Not Timid,” whose web site describes it as “a 527 organization to educate the American public about what Hillary Clinton really is.” Is it conceivable that an anti- Obama group would dare to give itself an acronym that spelled out the N word?

Despite all this, the Democratic presidential contest has given me a small sense of hope — because, for the first time, a black man and a white woman were the top two contenders, and the color barrier may be broken at last.

Things are changing. But, for women, not very fast.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.