Monday, August 11, 2014

First Ladies

In case you haven't noticed, Hillary Clinton has been all over the news lately. (Eric and I particularly liked listening to her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross - check it out!) And not just because she recently wrote a book about her four years as Secretary of State - she's also the most likely presidential candidate for the Democratic party.

I know this meme is two years old, but I still love Texts From Hillary.

So, as people are wont to do, they are taking to the internet to talk about why she shouldn't be our next president. One criticism I've heard a lot from people on all sides of the aisles is some variation of this: "We need fresh blood - if Hilary was president we'd just have a Bush/Clinton dynasty." Just one problem with this: there's actually a big difference between the politicians in the Bush family and the politicians in the Clinton family (and not just in their ideologies). Unlike any of the Bush politicians, Hillary Clinton is a female.

Political careers are inaccessible for lots of Americans, and especially so for women (and especially so for women of color, but that's another post entirely). The lack of female political representation in our country is truly astounding. Every year, the World Economic Forum releases a Global Gender Gap report that rates 136 countries on how close they are to closing the gender gap in health, education, economics, and politics. (The full report is a fascinating read for anyone who's interested in the state of women globally.) For 2013, the US ranked 30th overall, but in the political empowerment category, we ranked 60th. Almost half of the countries rated by the WEF have more women in political leadership than we do, including every Scandinavian country, Australia, Mozambique, Slovenia, China, India, and our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Pakistan, which is ranked second-to-last overall, is ranked 64th, just 4 below us, in political empowerment. We are only doing slightly better at appointing female leaders than a country where women are violently attacked for attending school. Not exactly impressive.

We also rank 95th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, right behind Albania. And, sadly, this is a high point for us! We have more women in Congress than ever before. I'm all for celebrating progress, but we have to recognize that this particular progress has been very slow. According to this great article from The Nation, if we keep progressing at our current rate, women won't receive fair representation for almost 500 years. (That article also talks about the struggles that female politicians face in the US, and why it's important to have equal representation, in case you need empirical evidence.)

So what does this have to do with Hillary Clinton? Well, I'm willing to bet that there are more women married to/partnered with male politicians than there are women that hold political office. And those women are learning a thing or two about politics.

Hillary in 1969. Photo from LIFE
Take the United States's First Ladies, for example. While we've had zero female presidents, we've had forty-six First Ladies. I think being a First Lady would be pretty weird, because it's an official position that is unpaid and has no official duties, and back when our Constitution was written, First Ladies were mostly expected to entertain guests and keep the White House looking good. But especially in the last 100 years, our First Ladies have done a lot more than entertain guests and select floral arrangements - although I would venture to say that these are (undervalued) diplomatic skills in their own right. Recently, First Ladies have done things like promote international diplomacy, preserve the environment, work to de-stigmatize mental illnesses, and advocate for healthy eating and exercise. They fight for human rights, literacy, and healthcare reform. They attend meetings and conferences with other world leaders. Their title may not suggest it, but they are politicians.

So it should be surprising to no one that after eight years as First Lady (and 12 years as the First Lady of Arkansas, not to mention her career as a lawyer), Hillary Clinton was pretty politically savvy. She went on to become a US Senator, a presidential candidate, and the Secretary of State. (Sidenote: I just learned that in the year 2000, she was the first woman ever to be elected statewide in New York, the 3rd most populous state in the US. How is that possible??) Now, in the year 2014, she is quite possibly the most qualified (potential) presidential candidate our country has ever had.

Politics and nepotism have gone hand-in-hand for basically our whole history as a country - but really, only men have benefited from it. The son of our second president became our sixth president; Abe Lincoln's son became Secretary of War; and we all know about the politically-ambitious Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Bush families. This hasn't always worked out well for our nation, but I've never heard anyone say that male politicians who are related to other male politicians don't deserve to run and get elected to political office. And yet this is exactly what people are saying and implying about Hillary Clinton.

Just like John Quincy Adams and Bobby Kennedy and George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton is a politician in her own right whose familial ties gave her an advantage. But unlike all those other dudes, she wasn't raised and bred to be a politician; instead, she was born into a world where she was statistically more likely to marry a politician than to become a politician, and she ended up doing both.

This picture happens to be my desktop background.
Here's the thing: In a patriarchal society (such as the one we live in), women don't have the same opportunities that men do to succeed. Sometimes, women's paths to success look very different than what we'd want or expect. So women get accused of being "gold-diggers" if their partner's money helps them achieve their own goals, or they get chastised for using their sexuality to sell their brand (while the male-controlled mass media tells us that our sexuality is our only value), or they get accused of leeching off of their husband's/family's/neighbor's success. When a man attributes his success to his wife, everyone oohs and aahs at how loving and progressive he is, but women are supposed to show that they can be successful independently - but not too independently, because then people will call you shrew, or a ball-buster, or question your sexuality. When success is defined by the standards and opportunities that men have, women cannot win.

By no means am I telling you to vote for Hillary (although I probably will vote for her, should she choose to run for president, and I'd love to talk to you about it if you want). There are definitely valid, non-sexist criticisms of her, just like with any politician/human. But please, don't say "Bros before hoes," don't criticize her hair or her outfit, and don't ask if a woman (or by some miracle, two women) could really represent our country. And keep in mind that female politicians have to work really, really hard to be seen as legitimate candidates, even when they happen to be married to a former president.

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