As a candidate, I find Hillary Clinton problematic. I don’t worry about her health and age; Karl Rove’s red-faced high blood pressure isn’t having much of an effect on mine. Her policy preferences are not my concern. I’m sure she would be a strong and decisive leader, that she could and would do great things for Americans across the United States, for men and women alike. I prefer her to most other potential Democrats. No, I find Hillary Clinton problematic in that, if elected, she would be America’s first female president.
As a feminist — and that word is so over-politicized I’ve lost half my audience already — but as a feminist, I take issue with the fact that the first female president would also be a former first lady. It’s not that she’s unqualified. She went to Wellesley for undergrad, Yale Law School, and served as a U.S. Senator. She worked on various children and family committees, served on business board, was a supremely talented lawyer, and of course had her controversial time as Secretary of State. She does not lack for her own individual education and experience, or her own accomplishments. It could also absolutely be argued that her marriage to Bill Clinton, which encompassed his presidential campaign and presidency ,was a firsthand opportunity to observe the trials and tribulations that go with the job she might seek in 2016.
What I find so disturbing is that this job she may seek is a position at the pinnacle of our nation. It waits to be filled by one out of the 318 million Americans, give or take a few — approximately half of those women — and the only viable female candidate we seem to have found would be grandfathered into place, in a sense, by her husband’s connections and career.
I say viable female candidate because Mrs. Clinton is hardly the first female to compete for the presidency, or to consider running for president. There’s a long list of candidates from a range of parties, including both Democratic and Republican. She wouldn’t be the first to run, but she would be the first to run with as much national attention, the first to run with such heavy backing. For me, it would mean more to watch a woman rise to that place in her party and in politics without having gained any appeal, power, funding, or votes from a president sharing her last name. The victory would feel more complete.
It isn’t that I don’t want her to win, or that I won’t be rooting for her if she runs, or will even be unhappy should she take the position. It’s the concept that bothers me, and in the end, I think it would be a loss.
Now, you might say, “But the approximate 159 million women in the U.S. are not all qualified to be president, you’re exaggerating the numbers,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. So let’s take a look at how many women held elective office in 2014 and narrow our examination down to at least those women with political backgrounds. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), there are 104 women in Congress, 20 in the Senate and 84 in the House. Six women hold governorships, 13 act as lieutenant governors, and 58 hold other statewide elective executive offices. There are 1,786 female state legislators, accounting for 24.2 percent of the total, and there are 16 women mayors among the leaders of the 100 largest cities in the U.S.. Those are just the women in elective office. There are plenty of women appointed to political positions with a backlog of leadership and political experience outside of those numbers as well.
I have the same problem with Hillary Clinton’s potential presidency as many, including me, have with the role family has come to play in politics. Political dynasties and Hillary Clinton are both symptomatic of a pathway to power paved too often with family, money, connections, and those educations and experience that family, money, and connects buy. Becoming president of the United States is a one in a million opportunity, an impossible unlikely lottery win in the field of politics, and part of the appeal of the American electoral system, naïve as it may sound, is that any one of us can lead our nation should our fellow countrymen so chose.
Any woman can become president. It feels like a slap to the face of America that so many of our politicians stem from the same family, or that our first female president appears to require a husband who came before her. It reminds us just how limited access is. There are counter examples — President Barack Obama could serve as one himself — but dynastic examples are far too easy to come up with.
One last issue worth mentioning: Some will argue that Bill Clinton’s opinions and politics will influence his wife’s. Is that bad? I think it’s only logical that a partner of so many years should offer advice or counsel to his wife. I’m sure many married presidents have sought comfort or aid from their partners. But those partners had not held the presidency in their own right, and that line between advising and co-leading seems tenuous and dangerous for our first female president, who we would all like to see clearly standing on the strength of her own two legs. It’s not that I don’t believe she can, but it’s important that this be indisputably clear to those who may not — and there are certainly those who might not, as we can see below.
Yes, both Mr. and Mrs. Clinton both work in the same field, both have a right to a career in politics unlimited by the successes of the other. Just because Bill beat her to it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right to go after the same job. But does the Democratic party see so few faces and careers worth pushing to the forefront? As a woman, I see her as an accomplished politician in her own right. As a member of the public, I’m concerned we still see her as the President’s wife.
As Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University, told The Hill, “When you have people attacking your wife, your normal instinct is to come to her defense, but if she’s running to become commander in chief of the United States and the leader of the free world, she’s got to demonstrate an ability to do that herself … Their history is a joint history, and it will be very difficult for Hillary to get away from that.” Jillson prescribed a “strategic use” of Mr. Clinton, which, as a political method, would counter some of the negative associations. It seems perfectly reasonable to demand a first female president that needs no such precautions. A student questioned Clinton last year at Arizona State University: “If you don’t represent women in Saudi Arabia in politics, who will?” In answer, I certainly hope we could find someone else willing to. Of course, Mrs. Clinton made a laudable response, one that makes a valid point of its own, saying that, “It’s not just who runs for office, but what they do once they get there.”
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Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS