In which J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the complicated picture of women and politics in America and concludes that it is, well, complex.
One of the most complex, convoluted and controversial elements of this year’s presidential race in America is the increasingly vexed question of women in American politics. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not a column about whether or not a woman should run for office, and this is not an argument that women should not be able to gain the highest political office in the land. That question, obviously, has been answered decisively – and in the manner it should have been, just as with so many other job classifications over the past generation.
As the father of two daughters, the writer is entirely pleased with this sea change in most aspects of American life. No, the real question is actually more complex than that one. What has been so unusual in America – in comparison to so many other places – about how Americans have dealt with the combination of women and politics?
The question comes up fairly frequently in the writer’s family, given the fact that both of his adult children are women, as is his wife, obviously. Sometimes this question is phrased as: Why is it that countries as politically, religiously, ethnically and economically varied as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Israel, Germany, the UK, and various Scandinavian nations, as well as Chile, Brazil and Argentina have all had (or now have) female heads of government – while America is only now facing the possibility that, come 9 November, this will finally become the case in the United States as well? That roster of other nations includes some strongly – even devoutly – Islamic nations, highly developed nations, nations with deep divides between haves and have-nots, countries with centuries of increasingly stable, democratic politics, countries with difficult, tempestuous colonial pasts, and nations that have only barely emerged from harsh dictatorial traditions. Without making too fine a point, early forebears to such a list might also have included Ptolemaic Egypt’s Cleopatra, Celtic Britain’s Boadicea and Palmyra’s Queen Zenobia some 2,000 years ago as female rulers of states where primogeniture was not in force.
And, looking ahead, there are reasons to contemplate the possibility that countries as different as France and Japan might conceivably join the ranks of such nations in the near future as well. Marine Le Pen may just possibly pose a winning threat from the populist-nationalist-right in French politics in the years ahead to achieve the presidency in the next general election there, depending on various internal and international developments such as terror incidents, immigration and economic growth. Admittedly, Le Pen has a steep, long hill to climb to lead her country’s majority party, but one never knows about such things.
And, even in the deeply patriarchal and usually very traditional world of Japanese politics, a woman MP who bears the sole name of Renh? now heads the country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party; while a former MP and defence minister, Yoriko Koike, is now the governor of Tokyo, a very powerful position within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
At this point at least, Renh?’s party remains a weak opposition one in contrast to the ruling LDP. Meanwhile, within Koike’s party, there are many other potential claimants to the party’s top leadership, as well as a whole posse of male powerbrokers who would want to select the successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But who knows how this would shake out in the future if both women have real success in their respective offices over the next few years. Imagine a parliamentary election in Japan where the two leading rival candidates for the prime ministership were both female.
Now, for fun, if you really want to glimpse a political “brave new world”, just imagine an international leaders summit, a few years into the future, that featured Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Marine Le Pen, Yoriko Koike or Renh?, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and a returning Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, all seated around the table together (not to mention a certain former head of the AU commission). And then there might well be Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi trying to gain the upper hand in such a meeting somehow…
Meanwhile, in a nation with a solid democratic tradition that stretches back more than 200 years, this year offers the first real possibility a woman will move into the Oval Office of the White House on her own, as opposed to her being a spouse sitting in on a few meetings on occasion. True, prior presidential spouses have had enormous impact on their husbands’ administrations. Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt easily come to mind, and more recently Michelle Obama as well.
John Adams, for example, credited his wife (privately, at least) with humanising his frequently acerbic, austere temperament, as well as providing him with a greater depth of understanding on issues both large and small. And she was not just a simple sounding board either. In one of her many letters to him in a voluminous correspondence throughout their marriage, she had pressed him, just as the Constitution was being formulated in 1787:
“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar (sic) care and attention is not paid to the Laidies (sic) we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
In that sense, women’s rights suffragettes can lay claim to Abigail Adams as their first advocate, in addition to her position as her husband’s key, quiet advisor. But her status then as a vote-less, in camera advisor would have been far different than that of an active politician, of course.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, Eleanor Roosevelt, meanwhile, even while she was First Lady, carved out an independent life as a public lecturer, writer and active campaigner for human and civil rights nationally and globally while her husband was president. Moreover, as First Lady, she travelled the length and breadth of the nation, acting as her husband’s informal but deeply probing “eyes and ears” (as he called it), looking into government programme successes and failures, especially given the impossibility that the polio-stricken president could carry out such efforts himself.
Among actual American politicians, Jeannette Rankin was the country’s first female member of the national House of Representatives. She was elected from Montana in 1916, and again in 1940, for two non-consecutive, two-year terms. In the 1916 election, Montanans elected her even before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution confirmed women’s right to vote nationally. (States such as Montana in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains regions had been strongly affected by a wave of the populism that also led to women’s suffrage, state by state, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, before more conservative parts of the nation could be brought on board in support of this fundamental right.) Rankin was an ardent pacifist, voting against America joining both world wars – even in the second vote that came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Or, as she had earlier said at an international disarmament conference in the inter-war period, in linking her two great causes, “The peace problem is a woman’s problem.”
In more recent times, women have increasingly become elected political figures, gaining a growing number of seats (although not yet in rough proportion to the population) in the national Senate, the House of Representatives, and as governors and mayors, as well as twice as candidates for vice president – first, Geraldine Ferarro with Walter Mondale in 1984 and then Sarah Palin in 2008. Female elected officials such as Shirley Chisholm and Elizabeth Hanford Dole have had their names placed in nomination for the presidency – but this was largely symbolism, not substance.
This time around, however, it is different, of course. After her defeat in 2008 at the hands of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton ultimately became her party’s nominee this year, with a stated determination to shatter that final glass ceiling in American political life for women. But, surprisingly for her, perhaps, Clinton has been in the public eye for so long – since her university days, in fact – that her presence in this campaign seems no longer to represent the kind of astonishing moment in American politics that it might have been for many younger voters – especially after Obama had shattered another barrier by becoming the first major party African-American presidential candidate and president.
From a kind of “establishment feminist icon”, Clinton has become – in many eyes – merely “establishment” in a world where it is no longer, presumably, a thing worth commenting on when women come to occupy positions of authority and power throughout the public and private sectors. In truth, of course, women were always in the workplace, but it was generally assumed by most men that they would be subordinate parts of that world of work, rather than its exemplars or leaders.
Nevertheless, the man she is opposing in this campaign, Donald Trump, seems, offering the very best possible interpretation of his words, like a man describing women in the way that was common in the years well before the civil rights and sexual liberation movements from the 1960s onward – like the world of his father, rather than that of his children. Instead, it actually sounds even more like the locker room banter of 13- or 14-year-olds than that of people competing for the right to lead the government of the most powerful nation on Earth.
He describes women as objects to be manipulated and managed. He uses them as props – especially if they are attractive – but to be discarded and disparaged easily if they fail to conform to his preferred body type or shape. In the process, this kind of rhetoric has cheapened the national political process in ways that will echo for years and be hard to expunge.
What should we make of a man who speaks of his first wife (he has had three, so far) such that he looked forward to divorcing her because her breast implants felt wrong to him. Or, when speaking of a beauty contestant in a competition he half-owned, that she had gained so much weight she was disgusting, or that a television talk show participant was like a pig with an ugly visage. And, hey, why is a presidential candidate even talking about beauty contestants or television talk show hosts in a nationally televised debate anyway?
The final – at least, so far, anyway – indignity to the national presidential process in Donald Trump’s hands (besides those bizarre references to his own sexual organs in comparison to the size of his hands), has been a threat to wheel in the current Democratic nominee’s husband’s past infidelities as a weapon against the candidate herself because Hillary Clinton didn’t defenestrate her husband nearly 20 years ago over his affairs. This, of course, lays open the possibility that she – or one of her surrogates – will end up replying with commentary about Trump’s own barely concealed infidelities during his own first marriage. Increasingly, this whole contest is starting to sound like a battle between a medley of Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man, Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman and Donna Summers’ Worked Hard for her Money in competition with the lyrics from some of Snoop Dogg’s more sexually explicit, age-restricted material. Ugh.
The goal of this seems to be his use of sex for the explicit purpose of wounding his opponent in a childish game of “Mine’s bigger than yours is, nya nya na nya nya”. Around 30 years ago, the writer distinctly remembers some political commentators seriously arguing a women could not be a capable senior political figure like a president or a cabinet official because she would be too debilitated or too challenged by the rigours of menopause to be able to make competent judgements in such circumstances. In its contemporary incarnation, we now have Donald Trump sizing up his opponent by diminishing her as lacking in stamina.
Of course this campaign along a sexual yardstick is just part of a still larger texture within the Trump campaign – and among its associates and allies – of a tolerance, and even an admiring pat on the shoulders, for the kind of bigotry that had increasingly been locked away from public discourse. But, as The Washington Post editorial board noted just other day,
“One of the most disturbing aspects of the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is the legitimisation it has provided for extremist discourse. Rhetoric that properly has been taboo in this country for a generation — overt racism, sexism, [italics added] anti-Semitism — has begun to seep back into politics, with Mr Trump and his closest associates providing cover. A telling example appeared this week in the form of a personal attack on the website Breitbart, whose executive chairman is Stephen K. Bannon, Mr Trump’s campaign chairman. Its subject was Anne Applebaum, who is one of The Post’s most distinguished opinion columnists, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and — as the item repeatedly and gratuitously pointed out — a woman [italics added] of Jewish origin.”
Damn, Breitbart just managed to score a two-for on the intolerance and bigotry fronts on behalf of the Trump cohort.
And so we have a presidential candidate who seems determined to drive American political discourse back to the 1950s; back to a time when men could get together to discuss women in vivid anatomical terms with little or no sanction from anywhere; where an obscene bigotry has been bootlegged back into public discourse; and where political rhetoric has been so cheapened and debased that the body mass of a beauty pageant contestant or another candidate’s husband’s bad-boy behaviour is a legitimate replacement for national debate on crucially important economic or national security policies.
If there were a referee in this match, the man would have been red-carded from participating in the next two presidential candidate debates. If for no other reason, the ref could cite his deplorable taste in language and thought – or for the way he has urged his followers onward to use the basest kinds of discussion. Frankly, he should just shut up about these things before the national gorge rises beyond anyone’s ability to restrain it any further. DM
Photo: US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) speaks as her husband former US President Bill Clinton (C) and her daughter Chelsea Clinton (R) look on, during the Democratic Caucuses night campaign rally at Olmsted Center, Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, 01 February 2016. EPA/CRAIG LASSIG
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