This is not an essay about how you should vote in the next presidential election.
I believe you should vote in a way that reflects your own personal blend of what you value and what you can stomach in a presidential candidate. If that comes down to registering your support for someone who has no real chance, writing in your ideal candidate, or even staying home on election day, I respect that. Your vote is yours, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation, let alone justification, of how you decide to use it.
Me, I intend to vote with my vagina. Unapologetically. Enthusiastically. (Metaphorically, for those concerned about ending up in line behind me.) And I intend to talk about it.
During the 2008 Democratic primaries, I supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama for two main reasons:
She was older, which mattered to me a small amount in terms of experience, and a large amount in terms of the difference eight years would make. President Obama is younger than two of my siblings. If he ran today, at 53, he’d still be younger than most of his opponents. Hillary Clinton is now 67—in apparently great health, and willing to go through all this bullshit again, so more power to her! But now, in addition to the usual sexism coming her way, we’re about to endure 18 months of hearing what a shriveled old crone she is—and wouldn’t she be better off staying home and dandling wee Charlotte on her wrinkled knee? I was really hoping to avoid that.
She’s a woman, and President Obama is a man.
But during the 2008 primaries, I was never supposed to admit the second one—just as those who were excited to vote for an African-American person in the primaries were supposed to pretend they never noticed the color of the candidates’ skin. Progressives were allowed and even encouraged to speak about what it meant that either way, we’d have the opportunity to vote for a historic first, and change the face of the presidency forever. What glorious times we live in! But as soon as a progressive woman indicated that gender was a serious factor in her support for Hillary, or a person of color mentioned wanting to see someone who looked like them in the White House, we were scolded for engaging in the dreaded identity politics, as though white men haven’t been doing just that with their presidential votes since 1789.
We were supposed to pretend whichever one we favored had far better policy positions—even though they’ve always been extremely similar. We were supposed to believe that one of them secretly intended to govern as a progressive, while knowing full well that they were both centrist Democrats. We were supposed to forget all of the evidence that neither one would truly represent progressive citizens, because they didn’t need to risk being called “socialists” (even more) to earn our votes. As long as the Republican party remains as far right as it is, and liberal Supreme Court Justices keep aging, enough of us will show up at the polls for Democrats, however demoralized and exhausted we feel. We were supposed to act like they needed us.
We had to participate in all those fictions, because policy, voting records, past statements, and the occasional sop to a minority voting block are serious reasons for supporting a candidate, while gender and race are deeply unserious reasons. We know this because white men told us so, millions of times. Gender and race have nothing to do with how a person will function as a president. We know this because we only had White, male presidents for 220 years, and they were all quite different! To say you supported Hillary because she was a woman, or Obama because he was Black, was to declare yourself overemotional, illogical, and selfish. (Just like a woman, come to think of it!)
A few years ago, I had terrible, Shining-elevator periods. I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids and referred to an OB/GYN practice. Appointments with two different female gynecologists fell through, so I eventually said to the receptionist, “Okay, who is available to see me tomorrow?” She booked me in with an older man, who suggested I try an IUD to control the bleeding. This was a reasonable thing to try before moving on to surgery. And it did, in fact, slow the blood flow down—but also made it so I never got a break. Instead of heavy periods, I had constant lighter bleeding.
I was told to wait three months to see how things went. At three months, the doctor said my experience wasn’t totally abnormal, and I should just hang in there, because a large number of women with IUDs end up with no periods at all! And the flow was lighter, right? Wasn’t that an improvement over soaking through a super-plus tampon, an overnight pad, underwear, pajama bottoms, sheets, and a mattress cover in the middle of the night?
At five months of constant bleeding—do you have any idea how much pads and tampons cost, by the way?—I broke down sobbing about it one day, and my husband flew into crisis-management mode.
“We are finding you a new gynecologist right now,” he said, opening up a doctor-finding website. “Do you even want to look, or do you want me to just make an appointment for you?"
“Just make an appointment,” I said. “All I care about is that it’s a woman. I want someone who has a visceral concept of what it means to bleed for five months straight.”
The new doctor was great; I no longer have a uterus; happy ending. But the point is, both of these doctors had the same basic training and licensing. They both had experience treating fibroids. But only one of them knew what it’s like to menstruate.
Of course—of course—there are wonderful male gynecologists and awful female ones out there. I would absolutely not prefer the Sarah Palin of gynecologists over the Barack Obama of gynecologists, for perfectly obvious reasons, so let’s just leave that silly argument alone. But when I’ve been bleeding for five months straight, and a man keeps telling me it’s no big deal, I want to talk to a fucking woman.
There has never been a president who knows what it’s like to menstruate, be pregnant, or give birth. There has never been a president who knows what it’s like to be the target of subtle and categorically unsubtle sexism. There has never been a president who was criticized widely for his political ambition, or forced into a bake-off to prove he’s not too career-oriented to cook for his family. There has never been a president who was forced to take his spouse’s last name for appearances’ sake. There has never been a president criticized for showing too much cleavage, or having “cankles,” or wearing unflattering headbands or colorful pantsuits. There has never been a president who was presumed to be mentally and emotionally unstable because of naturally occurring hormones.
Until 2009, there had never been a president who had to work twice as hard to be seen as half as competent, and it’s been a welcome change.
There are other reasons why I’m ready for Hillary, but even if there weren’t, I would probably still vote for her just because she’s a woman (who belongs to the party I find less odious). And I submit to you that for me, a person who has never been fully represented by an American president in terms of policy or gender, that is a damned solid reason. What’s illogical and ill-considered is not my “vagina vote,” but the ludicrous notion that 226 years of male rule have somehow left us in a position where gender is immaterial.
I won’t knock any progressive’s protest vote or general lack of enthusiasm for Clinton. If I could vote for my ideal candidate, it would be Bernie Sanders’s even more liberal sister; a pro-death penalty Democrat with strong Wall Street ties is not exactly my political twin. But it’s only been a couple of days since Clinton announced she’s running, and I am already so tired of hearing progressives act like it’s all so boring and old hat. The first fucking woman who can win is running for president, and she is at least nominally a liberal! Can we not allow ourselves to get excited about just that?
Are we not still proud to have helped elect the first African-American president, even if he disappointed us time and again? Can we not recognize that this is a big, historic deal, that will help pave the way for more liberal women—one of these days, dare we hope, even a progressive woman of color—to advance to the presidency more smoothly?
I won’t tell anyone how to vote. But I am telling you, this time, I refuse to shut up when people act as though it’s not enormously important, from a progressive politics perspective, that Hillary Clinton is a woman. I refuse to listen to anyone who warns against “vagina voting,” when I’m 40 years old and have still never had the opportunity to vote with my damned vagina in a general election. American women have been bleeding for over 200 years while men tell us it’s no big deal, and a lot of us have arrived at the point where we just want someone with a visceral, not abstract, concept of what that means.
There has never been a president who was a woman. That is more than reason enough.