When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher whose full name I’ve long since forgotten. However, some of his lessons have stayed with me much longer than his impossible-to-pronounce last name has. One day during class, he told us to take out a piece of paper, and he listed off about a dozen countries, asking us to write them down. The list included South Korea, Jamaica and Germany, among others. Then he asked, “What do these countries all have in common?”
After 20 minutes of incorrect guesses, he finally told us: “All of these countries are led by democratically-elected women.” The conversation that followed was probably the most feminist conversation to ever occur in a Catholic grammar school. I left social studies that day feeling empowered. Damn right, women could rule the world. In some places, they already were.
Now the United States has the opportunity to join that list. On Sunday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her highly anticipated campaign for the White House. Clinton has some major obstacles to overcome, the most challenging of which might be how we talk about female politicians in this country.
Of course, Clinton isn’t the first woman to run for president of the United States. Victoria Woodhull earned that title in 1872. She ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Frederick Douglass, before women could even vote. There is a long, long list of women — which since 2008 has included Clinton — who have vied for the presidency and lost. However, Clinton’s campaign is perhaps the first with widespread donor support and an inevitability factor. Clinton has the best chance to shatter a 240-year-old glass ceiling, but the media and the public need to stop viewing her as a “female candidate” and start seeing her as a “candidate who happens to be female.”
There are a lot of problems with how we view women in the media. They’re constantly objectified and glamourized. They have little opportunity to be more than thinner, “flawless,” Photoshopped versions of themselves. Should a woman share her opinion with the public, there’s a very good chance her critics will use gender-based attacks in response.
For women in politics, the game isn’t very different, except it’s their job to share opinions on controversial issues. Just browse the #HillaryClinton thread on Twitter for some of the most sexist, factually inaccurate crap you’ve ever read. Keep in mind that all of it was written about a former U.S. Senator and secretary of state who has degrees from Wellesley College and Yale University’s School of Law. She is literally the most qualified candidate for the job. Right now her competition consists of three freshman senators with very little substance. Despite all of her credentials, she has been boiled down to her pantsuits and her gender. What male candidate has to worry about that problem?
In an ideal world, I’d ask you not to vote for Hillary Clinton on the basis of her gender. I’d ask you to not consider that in your decision on whether or not to support her. But the truth is, this is not an ideal world. It’s a world where U.S. women make 78 cents to every dollar their male coworkers earn. It’s a world where a clear gender gap persists in science, math, business, politics and a multitude of other fields. Clinton’s election would help close that gap.
There is a historical element to this presidential election cycle. We’d be kidding ourselves if we ignored it. However, to simplify Clinton to the most general terms, to label her as the “woman candidate” and leave it at that is an insult to 51 percent of this country’s population. In a nation where only 18 percent self-identify as feminists, we need more visible female leaders in Fortune 500 companies, tech startups and the upper echelons of the federal government. The longer we treat women as a subsection of the population, the harder it will be for us to achieve any semblance of equality.
I am thrilled that Clinton could be our next president. I want little girls around the country to see that it’s OK to dream of being president of the United States. I want Clinton to be a symbol of another step down the long, long road towards equality for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. But I also want us to think about how we frame the next 18 months of discussion. The longer we downplay her qualifications and beliefs, the less likely it is that she will actually win. If we want a shot at contributing to the not-long-enough list of female world leaders, we need to see Clinton as more than her gender or her haircut. We need to see her as the next president of the United States.