If you’re a feminist, are you duty-bound to only vote for women? If you take gender equality seriously and have the chance to put more female candidates into power, is it ever defensible to opt for male candidates instead?
Those are our questions for the week, following comments by Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, who both seemed to suggest the answers are, respectively, “hell yes” and “hell no.”
Steinem, asked by Bill Maher why Bernie Sanders is so popular among young women, rather glibly responded, “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.” You know, because it’s not like college-aged women could possibly be interested in policy. (Steinem later apologized for the glibness.)
Albright, meanwhile, concluded her remarks at a Clinton event in New Hampshire by asserting, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” implying that, in the New Hampshire primary and beyond, Democratic women don’t really have a choice of which candidate to support. If you don’t vote for Hillary, you are effectively a traitor to feminism.
Is this diagnosis correct, or is it a relic of a bygone era? Is the mere fact of a candidate’s gender more important than whatever he or she actually thinks about women’s rights? Is the need for more female leaders so great that it becomes justifiable—if not outright imperative—to vote for a woman because she’s a woman?
In certain, extreme cases, the question answers itself. After all, not even Madeleine Albright was in favor of electing Sarah Palin vice president in 2008, presumably because Albright—like every other liberal—figured there’s no point in championing a woman who would actually make life harder for other women. Same with Carly Fiorina, whose whole candidacy has become a one-person crusade to destroy Planned Parenthood.
But in general, the idea of electing women for its own sake is an utterly valid voting strategy, and we should be politically incorrect enough to say so.
While the debate goes on as to whether men and women are more alike than they are different, we now have more evidence than we could possibly need to show that virtually all organizations are made more productive and more welcoming when they have some measure of gender balance. All things considered, there are few problems that cannot be mitigated by the presence of more women in the room.
Perhaps you heard about the moment last month when a blizzard closed down Washington, D.C., causing lawmakers to run for the hills. When the Senate reconvened, the first person to speak, Lisa Murkowski, noted that every single person in the chamber was a woman—from the presiding officer to fellow senators and their staff—and that this was, in fact, a total coincidence.
The implication, however, is that it wasn’t just blind chance that a bunch of female senators trudged their way into work when not a single one of their male counterparts could be bothered to get out of bed.
It’s a truth not-quite-universally acknowledged that a woman in a traditionally male profession is compelled to work extra hard just to be treated equally to her male counterparts. As such, any woman who manages to achieve a high-ranking position—be it in business or government—is liable to take nothing for granted and forever bring her A game.
Whether it’s genetic or merely an affectation of America’s sexist history and culture, powerful women, as a group, tend to be more dependably competent than powerful men. Why? Because they have a whole lot more to lose if they aren’t.
This being the case, why wouldn’t you vote for every qualified woman who came across your ballot? After centuries of men being given the benefit of the doubt—often undeservingly—why shouldn’t women be extended the same courtesy?
It really does matter that our leaders be representative of the people they serve. It’s all well and good to tell kids they can be anything they want to be—regardless of race, sex or class—but they won’t necessarily believe you until they see it happen to someone else. There is a world of difference, for example, between assuming America could elect a black president and actually pulling it off (twice!). Similarly, there’s no point in assuring young women that they, too, can become leader of the free world unless we prove it.
Again, this doesn’t mean you toss all other issues out the window when the opportunity presents itself. A liberal feminist shouldn’t be expected to vote for Carly Fiorina any more than a conservative feminist should be expected to vote for Hillary Clinton. There is more to life than identity politics and, after all, not every male candidate is as irredeemably misogynistic as Donald Trump.
But for those of us who truly believe in the imperative of shattering the world’s highest glass ceiling, there is something to be said for not waiting forever.
Among left-wing feminists today, there is debate as to whether Clinton is the right woman at the right time. That while electing a female commander-in-chief would be fantastic, there is no reason not to wait until a more ideal candidate turns up.
Far be it from me to argue that Hillary Clinton is perfect, but are we really living in a world in which someone who served eight years as first lady, eight years as a senator and four years as secretary of state is not good enough to carry the distinction of being the first female chief executive? If so, that’s a hell of a standard for any would-be national leader. In a way, the fact that this subject is not a first-order concern—particularly among young people—is a testament to how much the women’s movement has already achieved. I don’t blame Madeleine Albright for accusing millennials of being complacent.
Call me presumptuous, but I suspect that once the primaries conclude and the general election begins, all of that will change. If and when Clinton secures the Democratic nomination—pitted against a fanatically sexist GOP opponent, no doubt—the excitement of having a female commander-in-chief will finally and fully kick in and the need for a Clinton victory will become all-encompassing for all American liberals. And should she prevail on November 8, it may well owe to a group of swing voters who, for all their reservations about Clinton personally, will ultimately glance at their wives and daughters and think, “It’s about goddamn time.”