Women and politics: the REALLY longue durée

annetaintorladypresidentLet’s settle in for  a nice, long story, shall we?

Globally in the historical era–the past 7,000 or so years of recorded history, that is–politics and leadership has traditionally been gendered male, and power has also usually descended genealogically through patriarchal lines. (Except in cases of military conquest or revolution, when it has been seized by brute force by other men.)  When we have seen exceptions to the male exercise of political leadership–but what about Cleopatra?!? you’re thinking, or Queen Elizabeth I of England?!?–they are the exceptions that prove the rule.  They also came to power–as their brothers did–by being the children of kings.

Upon emergence of the liberal state around 1800, in which a select portion of citizens elect their political leaders to one degree or another, women’s opportunities to lead and rule were actually diminished, because democracies in this era restricted both voting rights and eligibility for public office to men only.  It is an uncomfortable fact for we Americans, we evangelists of democracy, that populism is not liberationist.  In fact, it ratifies contemporary prejudices and stereotypes–religious, racial, and of course, gender.  In the past century, Western democracies enfranchised women, but women in elective office have remained a tiny or merely small minority compared to men in elective office.

It is–or it should be, anyway–an uncomfortable fact for most progressive or leftist Americans to recognize that other liberal democracies have been more successful and inclusive of women’s leadership than we have.  Parliamentary democracies, in which prime ministers or premiers are elevated not because they personally are elected, but rather their parties are elected to lead their governments, have been much more successful in sharing political leadership with women:  Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Angela Merkel of Germany, Kim Campbell of Canada, and Australia’s Julia Gillard, for example.  However unfortunately, in all three of the English-speaking countries listed above (because Merkel is still the German Chancellor), these women stand alone in having served as prime minister.  No major Western power has yet elected  a second woman prime minister or premier.

Given 6,900 years of history (at least) when everyone on the planet saw political leadership and its close correlative, military power, as the prerogative of men, what has been women’s path to elective office?  Not surprisingly, even in the United States political power has been passed to women (as it had usually been to men) through kinship lines.  Most of the first American women in congress were the widows of congressmen who were asked to serve out the rest of their late husbands’ terms, and some of them then went on to run for an win their own terms.  We have also seen daughters of congressmen and senators run for office, just as we have seen male political dynasties repeatedly ratified throughout the history of the republic:  The Adamses, the Harrisons, and more recently, the Roosevelts and the Bushes are all families in which kinship and name recognition played significant roles.

Therefore, given the weight of 7,000 years of recorded history, we should not be surprised that the first serious woman contender for the presidency in both 2008 and 2016 would be someone with kinship ties to another president (through marriage, not blood).  It’s been continually amazing and frustrating to me to hear even Democrats and leftists complain that they think Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency is illegitimate because of her kinship tie to Bill Clinton–that it smacks of entitlement, rather than merely history, which is how the political ambitions of sons and nephews and male cousins of U.S. presidents is coded and discussed.

he-manThey’re making American history!  She thinks she’s entitled.  Yeah, just like Edith Wilson, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush, all of whom went on to succeed their husbands and had very successful presidencies.  Ooops–I mean none of them.

Any first woman U.S. president would be revolutionary.  A progressive Democratic woman president would truly be  a break with history, because women “firsts” in these leadership roles have tended to be either very short-lived (Campbell) or center-right to very conservative (Merkel and Thatcher, respectively).

Needless to say, I would welcome any further comments/correctives from people who are actually experts in, say, ancient, medieval or early modern European or Asian history, or political science, or the fields on which some of my generalizations here have touched.  I’m just trying to explain my perspective as a historian on women and political power, and what I think we miss if we narrow our vision only to the past century, or only to one nation or culture.

I will be caucusing on March 1 for Hillary Clinton to make history, as I did back in 2008, and as I voted for Barack Obama that November to make history.  I’ll caucus for Clinton because of all of the candidates running this season in either party, she would be the best president.  Others disagree, including  some people I really like and respect.  She’s got  a tough climb–her pitch is that she’ll protect and preserve Obama’s achievements in his historic, two-term presidency, and that’s always  a more difficult path.  Only three people have succeeded two-term presidents of their own party in the past century–Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and George H.W. Bush–and they’ve all only had one full term apiece.  That’s even more history stacked against her.

I will not argue against anyone’s support of another Democratic candidate, and I’m not going to disparage their or their candidate’s temperament, judgment, or policies.  But I’m (once again!) astonished by the vitriol and virulence that some so-called progressives are directing against Clinton and her supporters.  Once again–as in the 2000 debates among progressives about Nader versus Gore, or in the 2008 primary between Clinton and Obama–the conversations seem to me to be mostly projections of fantasies of purity versus corruption, not actual discussions of people’s actual positions or records of achievement.  In other words, the narcissism of small differences has taken over the so-called “reality based” party again.

It’s almost as though they’re afraid of a woman taking the reins.  But of course, they’re not against a woman president!  Just. Not. That. Woman.  Or any other woman who has actually had the stones to run for president or vice-president.

ruby slippers

The angels want ’em.

As the old song goes, “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”  Because I can’t control or change the misogyny that still lives within us all, I’ve decided to be amused at how some on both the left and the right get so worked up over Clinton.  It proves my point about how revolutionary her presidency would be.  She’s rubber, you’re glue, etc.!

31 thoughts on “Women and politics: the REALLY longue durée

  1. It is so good to see this! It takes my breath away to hear Clinton rubbished as some “Establishment” candidate. I just stutter and gasp a bit. Now I can wave this post at them. 7000 years of history, you moron! I can yell at them. (Well, no, I promise to be polite in the hope of not alienating too many voters.)

    But, seriously, I’ve spent a lifetime in the trenches, and it’s only been while watching the defensiveness and the sexism and the sexist defensiveness surrounding the Hillary Clinton campaigns that I’ve begun to realize how deeply metastasized misogyny is.


    • Thanks!

      I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to trash anyone else’s candidate, but I’m not going to let the fantasizing about the right woman candidate go uncontradicted. Friends, there ain’t no Goldilocks candidates out there, and looking for one who’s neither too young nor too old, not too green or too experienced, not too decisive and yet not too malleable is a recipe for never looking at women for political leadership.


  2. Yup. I’ll sign this brief without addition or even much commentary. Like 2008 all over again. “Projections of fantasies” just about says it all. I would only add to its implicit bibliography a couple of relvant titles, Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkins, ” ‘The Petticoat Electors’: Women Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776-1807,” Journal of the Early Republic (Summer, 1992), 159-193, in which a revolutionary state accidentally neglects to prohibit women from voting for a short while; and Lori Ginzberg, _Untidy Origins: A Story of Women’s Rights in Antebellum New York_, which teaches well, every time out, even to undergraduates with fidgety attention spans.


    • I thought Bernie Sanders was a Democrat now. He’s running for the Dem nomination, isn’t he? In that case, I don’t think it would be nearly as revolutionary to elect a Democratic man president.


  3. I’m not sure I’ve ever voted in a primary before. But I registered to vote in my new state–and signed up to vote by mail, since Super Tuesday falls during my spring break–JUST to add my vote to the Hillary column.

    Allegedly I’m too young to love her as much as I do, but damn. I do love her.


    • Sorry! I’ve never quite grokked the whole President AND PM structure of the French gov’t. (How & why can the President appoint the PM? Does she then become the party leader & function essentially as the U.S. Speaker of the House or Minority Leader?)

      I was thinking about Segolene Royale when I wrote this piece, and her ’07 run (unsuccessful, obvs.) for the presidency against Sarkozy.


      • France is a mix of presidential / parliamentary systems.
        Legislative elections determine who will be the PM but the appointment is still made by the President. Speaker of the National Assembly is a different function, occupied by one of the leaders of the majority party. The PM is the head of the government but the President has more power than in a regular parliamentary system (so, different from the German or Irish presidents) especially in foreign policy and military matters.


      • Thanks, Chrism! May I just say: that’s so FRENCH!!!! So completely impenetrable and (to my Anglo-American mind) unnecessarily complicated. Then again: the performance of the U.S. Congress in the past 5-6 years or so is no advertisement for our Constitution. Fer sure.


      • And in r.e. chrism9740’s point, it gets even more complicated in case of “cohabitation” (don’t you love the domestic terminology?), where the presidency and the legislature are in the hands of different parties. Vive la France!


  4. I remember 2008. I also remember 2004, when a black woman called Carol Mosely Braun ran for the Democratic nomination. Oddly enough, there was no push for We Need A Black President Now! She was generally dismissed as a hack Chicago politician without the experience to handle the US presidency.

    I’m glad Sanders is in the race because it allows Clinton to move to the left. However, I have questions I’d love someone to pursue about Sanders. Like how the radical who agitated for integration in Chicago landed up in nearly lily-white Vermont. No offense meant to Vermonters, but you’d think someone battling for change would stay in Chicago or move to another city where activism was sorely needed.

    While Clinton was forming ties with world leaders — including many women leaders who fall under the media radar — Sanders kept a developer from monopolizing the Lake Champlain shoreline for the rich. Nice, but seriously?

    The so-called progressive left won’t forgive Clinton for the Iraq resolution vote. They forgave Kerry that vote, as well as his walking back his Vietnam War opposition (and his goofy salute). But Clinton somehow is personally responsible for the clusterf*ck.

    I donate what I can, and I’ll vote for her in the MI primary. But I’m glad she’s tough, because if she’s elected she’ll have to, even more than Bill, battle her own party as well as the Republicans to get anything done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, the AUMF vote of 2002. Yes, it was a bad idea! Yes, it was totally predictable what the Bush admin would do with it! Yes, everyone in the U.S. Senate at that time who wanted to run for president VOTED FOR IT, including not just Kerry and Clinton but also John Edwards and John McCain!!!

      Great point about Braun, the first (and still the ONLY) African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. She got zero credit for that, and no love from the people of Illinois. She’s a great example of how people project aspirational/inspirational/revolutionary values onto men, and never see women as bearers of revolutionary change.


  5. Yes! Thank you for this! The one thing that has pained me about the media coverage of the Clinton campaign this year and in 2008 is the overwhelming tidal wave of misogyny. I think back in 2008 you made a point about the country being ready to set aside its racism and vote for a black president, but not being able to get past its misogyny and vote for a woman president. I hope that does not hold true this year.

    I haven’t made up my mind about who to vote for in the upcoming caucus in my state. I am not very excited about the caucus this year. I hate the caucus system. I think it should be declared unconstitutional because it suppresses voter turnout. I want to vote with a secret ballot. I do not want to hear my neighbors gabbling on and on about their preferred candidate for two hours before casting my vote. I caucused in 2004 in Minneapolis. It was an awful experience. The only people who were there were political fanatics and complete neophytes like myself. Horrible.

    I know I am not supposed to say that about ‘democracy’ but it was easily the worst political experience in my life. I would rather argue about race relations with a tea party member in broom closet than caucus again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • HAHAhahaha!!!! Your description of the caucus system is hilarious, Matt. My experience in Colorado in 2008 wasn’t that bad, but you’re exactly spot-on when calling it anti-democratic. Any system that expects people to show up for 2-3 hours in the service of casting ONE BLOODY VOTE is ridiculous. Add to that: some people work in the evenings! Some people can’t get away from their family responsibilities (or don’t want to.) Colorado has had vote-by-mail for a decade now at least; let’s go all the way and kill the caucus and hold party primaries by mail. DUH!

      As for Clinton’s press coverage: it’s not even the misogyny; it’s the unfair standard to which she is held. So, the “iron my shirts” guy gets a lot of press and takes most of the blame, when given the same resume a male candidate connected to a former president would be given a lot more credit & deference by everyone–the media, voters, activists in his party, etc.


  6. Great post, Historiann. U.S. voters think that they don’t like political affiliations/dynasties, but their voting patterns speak volumes about how they really feel. The “yes, but what about Bill?” stuff is just a bunch of wispy excuses.

    Also, don’t forget Shirley Chisholm, who ran in 1968.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a really provocative (i.e., thought-provoking post). I love your observation that “once again . . . the conversations seem to me to be mostly projections of fantasies of purity versus corruption.” I mean, it’s not just the past few elections; these fantasies are as old as American politics. Do you have any thoughts about how gender may play into or amplify the fantasies, given that women have often been depicted as/imagined to be “impure”?


    • Right on, Jan. Remember when the Obama campaign ran ads against Clinton in Nevada in Spanish in 2008 claiming that she was “sin verguenza”–literally without honor, or shameless?

      We are burdened by so many ancient prejudices when it comes to evaluating women’s competence. I think these issues really come to the fore in the case of older, experienced women, too.


  8. This is a brilliant post. I’m still a Bernie-ite, but that does not mean this is not a brilliant post. You are going to write something similar for a wider venue, right … op-ed for Aljazeera, something, something?


    • Thanks, Z. I’ll write for anyone who wants me to–but no one ever asks! Imagine that.

      Meanwhile, one thing is different from 2008, and that is that mainstream reporters and outlets like Dana Milbank at the Washington Post are writing regularly about the unfair double-standards to which Clinton is being held by both the mass media and the voters. That didn’t happen in ’08–it was only crummy bloggers and outsiders who pointed this out on a regular basis, and we were lectured by the Obamatrons about the absurdity of complaining about the sexist criticism and media framing of a former first lady, who was of course an obvious insider, etc.

      Maybe it’s just the contrast with Bernie Sanders, who is very shouty and old, so complaints about Clinton’s shoutiness and age seem particularly ridiculous. We’ll see how long this lasts.


      • Well, they won’t ask you to write, you have to submit to them. Truthout? The thing is that this is the first piece that has begun to convince me I should vote for HRC because she is a woman–and that isn’t even your argument or your intent. It is the hawkishness I never liked, and I vote against that on principle, but seriously this piece is convincing. You should get it out, get it seen.


  9. I’ve been mulling over this post for days, so a few thoughts, perhaps irrelevant now that Scalia has passed, premised upon the following general idea: both things can be true, that Clinton is not progressive and there are substantive and important critiques against her candidacy AND that she’s facing ferocious, misogynistic attacks from the left.

    It strikes me that you’re partially hitting the nail on the head that Clinton’s following in a long line of women who reach power because of kinship ties. What’s unprecedented in US politics (and unprecedented precisely because there has never been a woman of a major party with a serious shot at the nomination) is that that kinship tie is through marriage. That does strike me as fundamentally different than son, cousin, or brother in that we presume a certain level of closeness between spouses that is much less likely to form between these other relationships. This generates, I think, some of the discomfort: yes, that’s gendered discomfort, especially when it assumes she is incapable of acting as her own counsel, but the discomfort is also with the novelty of this particular tie. Note Rebecca Traister on this: https://newrepublic.com/article/121733/best-thing-hillary-could-do-her-campaign-drop-bill

    More importantly, though, I’ve read you over the years as suggesting that there are few if any valid, substantive critiques of Clinton on the left. But in this moment of Black Lives Matter and Occupy, the fact remains that she is simply not progressive enough for many progressives support heartily. This is not magical Sanders thinking, I stress. I, for one, find this year’s choices to be quite disappointing: I have no confidence in Sanders to win the election or do anything if he somehow did win the election. And his supporters’ ferocity makes me incredibly nervous. Nor am I convinced by his post-BLM confrontation adjustments. (And frankly, while I’m not surprised that 18-25 year olds are flocking to him, I’m not sure why my fellow early 30somethings aren’t more skeptical, given what’s happened since 2008.) But I also don’t believe that Clinton has my back, or the backs of black people or really the backs of the working class once an election is over. (I also continue to believe she’s not electable given the viciousness of right-wing hate towards her, but that’s another matter.)

    I guess what I’m saying is this: I think it’s legitimate to say “Not This Woman,” in the same way that many black people might have said “Not This Black Man” if Colin Powell had run. “Not This Woman” shouldn’t be said glibly, nor should we assume that a flood of women presidential candidates is imminent. But while she might be the best practical candidate, and while I would likely plump for her in a primary if I were a registered Democrat, I say all of this while still skeptical that she truly shares my beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry I missed this comment, thefrogprincess–I really am glad to hear from you and I appreciate your comment here.

      I think there are perfectly good reasons to prefer Sanders to Clinton, and I won’t say anything against him. I think it’s unfair, though, to say that Clinton is not a progressive, when of course for all but the past 8 years, all we have heard about is her dangerous feminism, her dangerous advocacy for children, and her very, very dangerous liberalism.

      I know that’s been fashionable to deny her liberalism for at least the past 8 years, but let’s not forget why the right is eager to fluff Sanders and to bury Clinton. They know she’s a much stronger general election candidate, but not because she’s NOT progressive: because she’s not a 75-year old socialist from Vermont. COME ON. Let’s get real. They’re dying to unleash the hounds if he manages to beat Clinton in the primary, but I guarantee you that they won’t unless and until he does. We already know the plays they’ll run against Clinton: we’ve been hearing about her uniquely inhuman corruption and awfulness for years, and yet somehow she remains not only unindicted for her fithy crimes, but the most admired woman in American for something like 20 years running.

      Honestly, if the Dems want to nominate a lost-cause candidate from New England, just go ahead and nominate Elizabeth Warren. Even as a Harvard professor, she’s got a better chance than Sanders! (I just had a student in my office today who told me about his plans to get a Ph.D. in Political Science AND to run for political office, and I had to tell him to do one or the other, because he would never do both. Americans are especially unforgiving of anyone with intellectual ambitions, but go figure: the kid was a Ron and Rand Paul supporter, so you get where he was coming from.)

      That said, it’s troubling that Clinton hasn’t been able to energize more people with her candidacy. Why not? Is it us, or is it her? Is it this weird political mood of 2016? Is it just this odd moment in the primary when only white people have been voting? Hard to say.


  10. Pingback: Hillary I? | Historiann

  11. Pingback: The prince’s body and the body politic, 2016 | Historiann

  12. Pingback: Busy, tired, sad, and fearful. And you? | Historiann

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.