I was born in 1984, the year Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro to join him on the Democratic ticket, making her the first woman to contend for the presidency or vice presidency with the backing of a major party.
I watched Hillary Clinton give her concession speech in 2008. I was covering the Republican National Convention for National Journal when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to be his running mate, sending me scrambling to the Alaska Women’s Republican Clubs to find out how Palin was regarded in her home state. And now the 2016 race has given us two substantive female candidates, Carly Fiorina for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, even if Fiorina was never likely to capture her party’s nomination.
All of these efforts have made me eager to see a woman stand on the steps of the United States Capitol and pledge to do everything in her ability to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And even more than that, I cannot wait for the moment when that woman has served out her terms and the sexist backlash that will be one of the responses to her presidency is over.
Both the 2016 campaign trail and the Obama presidency itself have offered previews of what might await America’s first female president during her time in office.
Ugly sentiments have cropped up on both sides of the campaign trail this season. Donald Trump, never one to adhere to the rules that govern a gentleman’s behavior in any context, has complained about Fiorina’s looks, implied that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s tough line of questioning at a debate was inspired by her menstrual cycle and ultimately skipped a debate rather than face her again. Chris Christie, outflanked by Trump in the crassness contest, managed to fantasize about spanking Clinton before exiting the campaign to spend more time with his New Jersey-based grudges.
Some Bernie Sanders supporters have adopted language and stances so aggressive and so tinged by gender that the candidate himself disavowed them, declaring “We don’t want them. I don’t want that.” Wednesday, the rapper and Sanders surrogate Killer Mike came under fire for quoting a woman who told him that “a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president” — he might have noted that, the historical record notwithstanding, possession of male genitalia seems incidental, if not downright detrimental, to the duties of the presidency.
The idea that such sentiments would dissipate once Clinton, or any other woman, took the oath of office is both sweet and utterly risible.
When Obama was running for president in 2008, his political opponents spread all sorts of racist memes to prevent him from gaining the presidency, from suggesting that his birth certificate had been falsified, to trying to tie him to former radical underground figures like Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dorhn, to insisting that he was an intellectual clone of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Those attacks failed to keep Obama out of the highest office in the land. But if his inauguration was a moment of national self-congratulation, seeming proof that we had overcome the biases that have defined the United States since its inception, the subsequent reaction to Obama’s presidency proved that optimism wrong.
The first woman to be elected president of the United States seems likely to face a similar experience. Her victory at the polls and her inauguration would undeniably be symbolically significant. But that triumph and her tenure in office would also provoke a nasty wave of sexist response.
As much as I will be proud to see a woman serve as president, I’ve also come to dread that time and the ugliness that will inevitably accompany it. I can’t wait to for those four or eight years to have come and gone.
For all the debates about Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency, which are considerable, there is a part of her résumé that is particularly relevant to this dilemma. More than any other woman in the United States, Clinton has experience absorbing tides of sexist trash and getting along with her work, whether she’s representing New York in the U.S. Senate, serving as secretary of state, or stumping on the campaign trail.
It’s true that being attacked doesn’t, in and of itself, make Clinton a virtuous person. And the decades of scurrilous attacks on the Clintons have left them less able to admit error than I might like. But even so, Clinton has had decades to learn how to withstand the attacks that will be aimed at the first female president, and to build relationships with other lawmakers, bureaucrats and foreign heads of state who now know her for herself.
Perhaps asking her to weather another four or eight years of viciousness is unfair. But Clinton appears to want the role. And if she wins it, she could spare another woman the very specific politics of personal destruction aimed at the first women and people of color to hold major roles in American public life.