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.
They’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.
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.!