A collage of Nikki Haley and two other female Republican politicians. Behind them is the Republican elephant in the color pink.

2016 Presidential Election

We’re Not Going to Like Our First Female President

If we've learned anything after the 2016 election—and we've learned a lot—it's that the woman who will break the ultimate glass ceiling will not come from the left. So, brace yourselves.

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How many different ways can we get the message that women don’t count? Just this morning, in fact, two female GOP senators who have consistently voted against the repeal-and/or-replace health-care bill—even as one of them has been threatened by the secretary of the Interiorwere overshadowed by Senator John McCain, who swanned in with his surprise “no” vote, and guess who emerged the hero? McCain’s vote even moved Democratic senator Chuck Schumer to tears—but he seemed unmoved by Murkowski and Collins, and even the disabled activists who put their bodies on the line. At least Schumer is consistent, because earlier in the week, as he unveiled the Democrats’ new slogan and strategy—”A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future”—it seems pretty clear that both parties have decided to run against Hillary Clinton in 2018, pushing their truism that it was the terrible Democratic candidate who did herself in. That narrative of the campaign was set in the early days of national stunned disbelief when various pundits and political players with axes to grind told the tale of a group of angry white working-class men whom Clinton allegedly ignored in favor of a campaign which foolishly assumed that in 2016, a majority of Americans were decent people who would be persuaded to reject the most openly misogynist, bigoted demagogue in modern political memory.

She was right about that. She won 3 million more votes than he did. But some quirks of the system gave Donald Trump the victory anyway when the Republican party united behind him and cobbled together a decisive electoral college victory. Nobody could call it a democratic result but by the archaic rules of the electoral college he became president and she was relegated to diving into a bottle of Chardonnay and wandering the Chappaqua woods.

And women all over the country muttered under their breath, “Yep. Even when we get the highest score, we still don’t get the job.” We simply don’t count, no matter what we do.

Women are half the population but only hold 20 percent of the political representation in the U.S. federal government. We place 100th in the world for female political representation with only 20 percent of offices held by women. The business press cheered wildly at the news that the share of women CEOs surged in the last year—from 4 percent to 6 percent. Women comprised just 7 percent of Hollywood film directors last year, down 2 percent from the year before. Across the board American women are lagging in leadership posts in absolute terms and in comparison to other nations.

As the early days of shock turned into an inchoate need to vent and share,  women’s frustration and despair found at least some expression in the woman’s march which  morphed into a grassroots movement that is working all over the country to resist the Trump administration and elect Democrats to office. Nonetheless, it became clear that any talk of the election as an illustration of the enduring sexism and misogyny in our culture was not going to be tolerated. 

As Rebecca Traister chronicled in her brilliant post-election profile in New York magazine, when Hillary Clinton herself dared to mention it as a factor in her defeat, pundits and analysts held her up for ridicule accusing her of making excuses for her own failure and demanding she apologize. When she tweeted congratulations to the new DNC chair, a well-known columnist responded with a simple command to “retire” suggesting that even having the temerity to participate in social media was unacceptable. A Daily News columnist put it more bluntly: “Hillary Clinton, shut the f— up and go away already.” 

And women who voted for Clinton got the message, loud and clear. It wasn’t just about her. It was about them too.  As the New Yorker‘s Daniel Kibblesmith satirically remarked, “It is time for Hillary Clinton to disappear from our magazine covers and our television screens, and gracefully retire from public life. Ideally, taking all other women with her.”

But the fact that nobody wants to reckon with the truth does not change the fact that sexism did play a role—a big one—one so big that, if you stop and think about it, is so obvious it’s shocking that there’s even any controversy. After all, the reaction of the Republican party to what everyone assumed was be the inevitable nomination of the first woman presidential nominee was to choose a man so crudely misogynist that he was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it. Republican voters wore T-shirts that said “Don’t be a pussy. Vote for Trump”; “Trump that Bitch”; “Hillary Sucks, but not like Monica”; and “Hillary for Prison.” They sold pins that had pictures of a boy urinating on her name.  And that’s just for starters.

These lovely items weren’t just produced on the sly by enterprising entrepreneurs catering to the fringe. They were sold at the Republican National Convention, the gathering which introduced the nation to the “lock her up” chants that resembled nothing so much as an angry 16th-century mob hysterically demanding a witch burning.

It was vulgar, rank misogyny. It was primal. It was explicit. And unlike the crude subterranean racism that roiled beneath President Obama’s two races, it was sanctioned by the highest reaches of the GOP and celebrated before a national television audience. And yet we are supposed to pretend that it didn’t happen. And if it did, the woman was asking for it because she was a terrible candidate, even though she won 3 million more votes.

Despite the virtual gag order on talking about sexism in 2016, there have been some intrepid souls who have analyzed polling data and it backs up what we all saw with our own eyes. The Blair Center Poll from the Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas polled 3,668 individuals immediately after the election using the Modern Sexism Scale, a tool similar to those employed by social scientists to detect racial resentment. They asked people to agree or disagree on a scale of one to ten with the following statements:

Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for “equality.” 

Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist. 

Feminists are seeking for women to have more power than men. 

When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against. 

Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States.

The results are very thorough and complex and show that the 2016 electorate was very much in the grip of sexism. 36.2 percent were clearly sexist and another 16.7 were neutral, although if you have a neutral response to those questions it’s a good indication that you aren’t exactly a crusader for women’s rights. Over half the public has a pretty low opinion of women and their response to those questions explains why nobody wants to hear about it.

Unsurprisingly, the Blair study shows that women overall are less sexist than men and the 2016 election gave us the largest gender gap in history: She won women by 12 points and lost men by 12 points, a 24-point gap.  Democratic women voted in huge numbers for Clinton as did women of color. Black women were her strongest supporters.

But one of the most vexing questions is why a majority of white women voted for a sexist brute like Donald Trump when the first woman candidate was on the ballot. The answer, of course, is that a majority of white women are Republicans, as are a majority of white men. And they are not feminists, at least in the way most of us would define it.

To understand why this is, one has to go back to the 1970s. Political historian Marjorie J. Spruill  chronicles the maturation of the women’s movement and the backlash that accompanied it in her book Divided We Fall, with a particular focus on the late Phyllis Schlafly and her highly successful leadership in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and weaving the modern anti-feminist backlash into the philosophy of the modern conservative movement.

By the time the ERA fight came along, Schlafly was already an influential political figure having written one of the right wing’s seminal tomes, her glowing endorsement of Barry Goldwater called, “A Choice Not An Echo.” She was a highly intelligent, energetic, longtime political activist and a born leader, all of which seem like odd characteristics for an anti-feminist. But that’s one of the key observations about conservative views on female leadership. You can have it but you can’t advocate for it. 

Schlafly energized millions of women to oppose the ERA and feminism by portraying feminists as “privileged” women who failed to appreciate the men in this world who had made their lives so easy. She said feminists  were making women unhappy and degrading their special status in society  by viewing the “home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” The ERA was a vehicle for top-down elites who refused to acknowledge the average everyday women who didn’t agree with them.

If that sounds familiar it’s because it was the template for many right wing arguments to come. Schlafly had found the formula for energizing women to become politically active around anti-feminism and it was immediately joined with the burgeoning conservative movement as an intrinsic piece of its message. 

Conservative women proved to be a major force in partisan GOP politics. They were powerful as long as they didn’t specifically demand power. They were influential as long as they pretended not to be. This is how female Republican politicians thread the needle—they model leadership while espousing traditional values. In other words, women may “lead” as long as it’s in service of patriarchy.

Hillary Clinton is a Democrat whose most famous quote is “women’s rights are human rights.” She’s long been pilloried as a “femi-nazi” and a ball-busting shrew who “couldn’t keep her man happy.” Her presence on the national ticket electrified that old anti-feminist strain Phyllis Schlafly uncovered so long ago. It’s no surprise that in her last act of political activism, Schlafly enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump.

2016 did show that parts of the country were ready for a woman president. What a majority wasn’t ready for was a feminist president as the traditional voters in rural, white America came out strongly for her sexist opponent.  This is why I believe that the woman who breaks America’s highest and strongest glass ceiling will most likely be a conservative like Margaret Thatcher or Teresa May in the UK.  (You’ll notice that the Labor has never had a woman leader.) 

While there have been some notable women presidents and prime ministers only in the more matriarchal systems like Scandinavia have they been successful and feminist. The record of openly feminist success in high office in recent years has been much more mixed in other countries. (Read Australia’s first prime minister Julia Gillard’s searing 2012 speech to see what it’s like in a country similar to our own)

I believe that just as only Nixon could go to China because he wouldn’t be red-baited by Republicans, the right conservative Republican woman president would be able to break the glass ceiling because she wouldn’t be subjected to the rank misogyny we saw on display against Hillary Clinton in 2016.  She would get her share of ugliness,  all women do,  but since she would run explicitly as an anti-feminist, “pro-life”, traditional values candidate, the issue would be muted. If she could embody the multi-racial melting pot while rejecting all the policies that help racial minorities and immigrants, they would embrace her enthusiastically and dare the other side to criticize her. 

I think the first woman president, barring other impediments, might very well be Nikki Haley, the child of Indian immigrants, former Governor of the arch-conservative South Carolina and current Ambassador to the United Nations. She would be bad for women and bad for civil rights. In fact she would be bad for everything the center and the left care about. I could never vote for her.  But until someone like her crashes through the glass ceiling first I’m afraid we will still be waiting for the first women president.  The patriarchy and the conservative women who serve it may be ready to allow a woman to lead but it will not allow the “first” to be a feminist. That’s the win they cannot grant. 

By the way, I have never wanted more to be wrong about something in my life. I sincerely hope that I am.


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