The New Republic ran a much discussed story this week, titled, “Hillary’s Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies with Elizabeth Warren”. As one might guess, much of the focus lies in pitting the politically powerful women against each other in the event of a (for now, just hypothetical) bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Author Noam Scheiber compares the two as potential candidates, concentrating most heavily on their respective involvement with and ideologies regarding the financial sector. Fair enough, but why exactly was Warren, who has not expressed any intentions of running so far, cherry-picked out of any number of other potential Democratic hopefuls? Well, here’s at least part of his reasoning:
“In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again.”
This is an incredibly problematic attitude. First, it reduces the desire for a woman president to a “desire to make history,” as though this is an issue on comparable footing to getting in the Guinness Book of World Records. There area a few reasons why a woman president might be meaningful:
1. It would demonstrate that the barriers that explicitly and overtly forbade women from filling this role have been lifted. Okay, so that’s been the case for a while though, right? Margaret Chase Smith ran in the Republican primaries all the way back in 1964.
2. Ideally, it would demonstrate that women have achieved equality with men in general and that they have the same life chances that could lead them to political power. This is NOT something that could be demonstrated by electing one woman president. This is something that would be demonstrated when women are generally filling positions of power commensurate with their membership in the population: roughly half the time. We already know that this is not the case at the given moment. Women currently hold 4.5% of Fortune 1000 CEO positions and 18.3% of seats in Congress.
3. Theoretically, it would mean that the interests of women were represented in the nation’s highest political office. It doesn’t take much critical thinking to observe that this is not necessarily always the case. Remember the undeniably anti-feminist platform Michele Bachmann ran on back in the 2012 ? Even Phyllis Schlafley endorsed her.
It remains to be seen whether or not a 2016 Clinton presidency would benefit women overall, but there is plenty of reason to feel skeptical. As Scheiber notes, Clinton is deep in Wall Street’s pockets, as exemplified earlier this month when she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches at Goldman Sachs. She was an ardent supporter of her husband’s 1996 welfare reform, which wrought havoc on single mothers living in poverty. While she has an impressive voting record on issues like abortion, she has a deeply unsettling history with victim-blaming when it comes to sexual violence. Comparatively, Warren does seem to have a track record that indicates her theoretical presidency would be more beneficial to women in a “big picture” sense. However, as previously stated, she has not expressed any interest in running. While Scheiber’s premise may well be correct, that Warren would be better for women, his overstatement of the relevance of that information is troubling. Does Scheiber really believe that, at this point in U.S. politics, woman-friendly policies are of critical importance to the majority of voters? That pro-woman credibility is sought after to the extent that a wildly popular politician like Hillary Clinton should be worried that a non-competitor will out-feminist her?
Scheiber’s assertion that Democrats want to elect a woman just for the sake of doing it reduces women in politics to mere tokens. Given the theatrical nature of mainstream politics, this actually might be truer than one would want to believe. But, if that is the case, does it really matter which woman would be the best advocate for women’s interests? We don’t have to look very far back to be confronted with Sarah Palin’s VP candidacy in the 2008 election, wherein she described herself as a feminist during an anti-abortion speech, and famously also gained her nomination shortly after publicly admitting that she didn’t even know what the vice president does. Around that time, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed addressing the qualitative differences between a candidate like Palin and a feminist candidate:
“This isn’t the first time a boss has picked an unqualified woman just because she agrees with him and opposes everything most other women want and need. Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”
I’ll never pretend that I see eye to eye with Steinem on every issue, but on this one in particular, she nails it. As a little girl, I used to tell anyone who would listen all about how I was going to be the first woman president. I abandoned that aspiration about 20 years ago, but I haven’t lost my passion for the subject. As a person who would love nothing more than to see women gain equal power in our society, I have little enthusiasm for efforts to artificially promote the image that we have achieved it prematurely. Whether Warren runs or not, we still have an awful lot of work to do.