What If We Elect Our First Woman President and She Lets Us Down?

Among popular feminist slogans, "Trust Women" runs a close second to the enduring observation that "the personal is political." In a society and media culture saturated with ambivalence toward women's leadership in the corporate and public sphere, the rejoinder that women can be counted on to make the right decisions when the going gets tough has special relevance as the nation prepares to elect the next president of the United States.

The final Democratic contenders in the 2008 primary race have been widely hailed as historic firsts, not only because both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have an excellent chance of prevailing in the general election, but because both are equally qualified to assume the job of Commander-in-Chief. Given that the candidate's positions on social and economic policy and ending the occupation in Iraq are almost indistinguishable, most women voters will cast their ballots based on more intangible factors, such as character, judgment, values, and the mythic potential of each candidate as a harbinger of change.

Senator Obama's supporters tend to be attracted to his transformative leadership style, luminous oratory, and big picture vision, and resent charges that the candidate is long on rhetoric and light on detail. Clinton's most ardent proponents see her as someone who deserves to be president because she works hard, plays to win, and absorbed valuable leadership lessons as chief helpmate during her husband's administration (and possibly as a reward for her graceful forbearance under the public humiliation caused by Bill Clinton's taste for fooling around). But Senator Clinton's appeal as a candidate is also drenched in symbolic meaning. In the canon of feminist folklore, Hillary's election would mark the end of women's historic exclusion from political power. Accordingly, the women most likely to vote for Clinton are those who relate to her résumé as a natural leader who made breaking the glass ceiling her life's work, and older, less affluent women without college education, who constitute one of the most socially invisible groups in the America today.

For undecided voters, the central question is whether Hillary Clinton is actually trustworthy. Her willingness to resort to the lowest of low-road campaign tactics to gain an edge on her competitor suggests that Clinton's internal drive matches up more closely with her 15 years of experience as a corporate lawyer than her image as the family-friendly First Lady who pronounced that "it takes a village to raise a child." Clinton's detractors point to a history of brittleness in situations that called for strategic compromise -- the sad fate of the Clinton administration's plan for universal health care being Exhibit A -- and her Bush-like refusal to admit she made a mistake when she supported the war in Iraq. Others note that Hillary's sense of mastery is grounded in the gridlock culture of the partisan political establishment, and conclude that she is an unlikely choice to disrupt the status quo. For voters who see Clinton's political ascendency as the culmination of 160 years of struggle for women's equal representation in government, none of this matters.

Since gender narratives are so prominent in Clinton's popularity with her core supporters, we can be confident that conventional wisdom about power and sex difference will also set the tone for the public dissection of her failure to deliver on her campaign promises if she is elected. If Clinton flubs the presidency, it will be seen in some circles as proof positive that women lack the right leadership gene to get the job done, rather than an example of systemic resistance to change or a simple case of human fallibility. More reasonable voices may succeed in dispelling such backward thinking -- but given the undercurrent of gender bias in the mainstream media, there is a very real possibility that rather than being a giant leap forward for womankind, a second helping of the Clinton administration will ensure that no other woman occupies the oval office for a very long time.

Daring to suggest that the potential fall-out from putting a woman in charge may be unfavorable to the advancement of women amounts to sacrilege in certain feminist camps. (A much-ridiculed press release from NY NOW accused Ted Kennedy of the "ultimate betrayal" for endorsing Obama this week, stating that Democratic leaders have an "obligation" to "elect, unabashedly, a President that is the first woman after centuries of men who 'know what's best for us'.") But as Bitch magazine co-founder Lisa Jervis comments in LiP magazine, "Having a woman in the White House won’t necessarily do a damn thing" to improve the status of women. "Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman -- any woman -- an attractive proposition, even if it’s just so she can serve as a role model for others who’ll do the job better eventually, it’s ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish." For younger women who've learned from experience that having a male boss with feminist values is preferable to having a female boss who is passing as a feminist success story because she clawed her way to the top, gender appears to be a less salient factor in voting patterns.

It would be dangerous, however, to hold female candidates to higher standards of perfection in fear of electing a woman who will let our side down. Sometime in the first quarter of the 21st century -- perhaps very soon -- the United States will elect a female president, and that occasion may go down in history as genuine turning point for women's progress. Or maybe not. In the meantime, it might be a good idea for die-hard Clinton fans to tone down their expectations. Magical thinking about Hillary Clinton's power to bring about feminist change could spell trouble for women down the road if she drops the ball.

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