I firmly believe the reason Barack Obama was able to beat Hillary Clinton in ’08 came down to her stance on the Iraq War. Her decision to vote for it undermined all her attempts to paint Obama as someone who was inexperienced and not ready for the job. How could she credibly claim to be a better leader than him when she supported the US’s biggest foreign policy blunder since the Vietnam War, while he strongly spoke out against it? But to me, her vote on that issue was bigger than that. For me that voted raised the question of whether she was woman enough to really be our first female president.
Now, obviously I’m not saying this to imply anything anatomical about the former Madam Secretary, I simply mean it to say that there are certain things I want from a female president that her stance on that issue caused me to question her ability to deliver on. Namely I want our first female president to lead in such a way that will distinguish her from her male predecessors. I want her to be in possession of and to exhibit certain qualities, temperament and attributes I believe are inherent or, at least, more commonly found in women: compassion, consensus building, less aggressive and more nurturing.
I fully believe a female president in possession these qualities would have easily seen the Iraq War for what it was: a huge mistake that was more about flexing muscle than addressing a problem and that needlessly risked America’s sons and daughters. In other words, I believe Iraq was the result of an overly masculine leadership style that amounts to a “shoot first, ask question later” mentality and displayed a cavalier attitude towards making war, which has been far too typical throughout humanity’s male-dominated history.
Normally, when having this conversation with women, this is where things start going horribly off track. The typical response I’ve gotten is that I’m playing on sexist stereotypes or that a female leader needs to be like a man in order to win. There are also many who firmly believe that the only thing that should matter is whether or not a woman is qualified for the office. Period. The end.
I suppose I have to admit to playing into some stereotypes of gender, and I’m clearly stating that I think there are some inherent differences between men and women. While I don’t know if these differences are biological or simply the result of how we socialize the different genders in our culture, I do believe they are real and none of the differences that I believe exist between women and men would make a woman unqualified or unfit to lead. Indeed, I think some of the differences would be a welcomed change from our current understanding and notions of what good leadership looks like.
That said, it seems that in this day and age many people believe a woman running for office has to concern herself with not appearing weak to overcome the stereotype of women not being strong enough or tough enough to lead. I think this is a shame and it’s the source of a lot of frustration for me. That’s because the end result of women trying to overcome some of these stereotypes has been that they over corrected and became more masculine than a lot of men (think Margret Thatcher), and, I fear, Hilary has already suffered the same fate by voting for the Iraq War.
Perhaps the best way for me to explain what I mean when I say I want a female president to lead like a woman is to go back to an issue I’m more familiar with: race. The fact of the matter is I have said the same thing about leadership and race in referring to Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for Obama simply because he was black, and despite what many people think in America, most blacks didn’t either. The simple-headed idea that blacks will vote for a black candidate any chance they get has been shown to be untrue time and time again. Remember, Obama didn’t even win the majority of the black vote in the first few primaries in ’08. No, there was more black people wanted out of a leader than just being black. The person also had to show themselves to be capable of winning. And with Obama, just like women with Hillary, many of us in the black community saw ourselves presented with someone who did not just represent a visual change, but was also well suited intellectually for the job. However, for Obama to truly be the first black president he had to be more than just a president who also happened to be black, otherwise his election would fall just short of tokenism. Obama also needed to be black enough in order for his election to really mean anything.
So, what does ‘black enough’ mean in this situation? It means he needed to not just look black, but to represent many of the black community’s shared points of view that come from living in this society. To see the polar opposite of what I’m talking about, just look at Clarence Thomas, the only black justice on the US Supreme Court. Is he black? Yes, of course. Do his views, opinions and rulings reflect the opinions, views and experiences of the vast majority of blacks in this country? Hell no! I’ll never say a black person doesn’t have the right to their own opinions (no matter how out of touch they might be), but when the vast majority of blacks in America are able to reach the same conclusion on a lot of different political and social issues because of their shared experiences, it’s hard to feel represented on the court when the only black guy up there views everything so dramatically differently. Thomas’s tenure on the Court has shown just how meaningless a visual change can be if it doesn’t also include a substantive change in the way a person sees and does things based on their experiences being part of a marginalized group.
Now when it comes to Obama, I know he views many of the issues related to race in America similarly to me. This leaves me with no doubt his blackness has affected his leadership and sense of fairness, and has influenced the direction he wants to take the country in. Being black doesn’t directly impact every decision he makes but it is there all the time affecting the way he views and sees the world and his notions of justice and fairness because injustice and unfairness is what so many blacks have had to deal with at times in America. I imagine many women have similarly had to deal with it, too. It affects his policy agenda and the issues he chooses to bring to the forefront like many of the institutional inequalities remaining in our country and his championing of gay rights. While I think Obama has been hamstrung and prevented from focusing more on issues of race by the current hyper-political atmosphere in our country, he has been black enough for me as president to be considered more than just a visual change.
I believe our first female president should be held to a similar standard of being woman enough. While obviously women are not as monolithic of a group as blacks, politically speaking, there are many views, experiences and opinions they share that come from simply having grown up in America’s male-dominated society. And just like I know the experience of being black in America makes us painfully aware of what happens when power is misused, I believe women are aware of a wide range of power imbalances and injustices that I have never even thought about. So, to make a female president more than just a token, this awareness needs to be reflected in the leadership qualities she represents and the agenda that she sets. My hope is that this will result in new ways and methods of problem solving being tried and the addressing of issues that have been ignored in our society and indeed the world.
However, the benefits that can come from female leadership will never be fully realized if every woman seeking office tries to be just like every other man who has ever held it, well-qualified or not. We don’t need an overly aggressive leader who forgets that the cost of war is sons and daughters. We’ve already had enough of them. We don’t need a leader who is incapable of imagining the suffering of people outside their immediate social circle. They’ve been peppered throughout history for long enough. We don’t need another president who turns a blind eye to social inequalities. They don’t do anything to change them. There will be plenty of qualities and situations in which a good leader, male or female, will react the exact same way, but I don’t see where a gender role has to be assigned to those actions. For me, it’s good enough to say those are the qualities of a good leader and leave it at that. As for the rest, let’s see how a woman can expand our understanding of what good leadership means instead of asking her to emulate the men who came before her.
Perhaps I underestimate how important and significant it will be for many women to simply see a fellow woman measured and rewarded on the sole question of “Is she qualified?” There is no doubt that that cannot be seen as anything but progress for our society. It was certainly an empowering feeling for me as a black man to see a majority of Americans twice treat Obama so fairly. However, I cannot escape the idea that a female president can be so much more than just qualified for the job. I really believe she could change what qualities we come to look for in future office holders and our understanding of what good leadership is forever if being “qualified” stops being limited to acting like a man.