Tuesday morning, after the Associated Press had called the Democratic nomination for Hillary Clinton, and before the round of primaries that put her over the top with pledged delegates Tuesday night, I sent out a call for readers favorite fictional female presidents, now that this particular fantasy is a step closer to becoming an American reality.
The results only served to illustrate how shallow our dreams of female leadership have tended to run. People overwhelmingly cited Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the secretary of education who becomes president when humanity comes under devastating attack in the science fiction series "Battlestar Galactica," with a few votes for Geena Davis, who played a vice president who also ascends to the top job when the president dies, albeit under entirely normal circumstances, in "Commander in Chief."
And as I waited for election results to roll in across the country on Tuesday, I found myself thinking less of fictional women who have led their societies and more about talented women of both history and invention who were destined to rise only as high as, and in tandem with, their husbands.
Take "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical not merely about the founding Treasury secretary of the United States (Miranda himself), but about the two talented sisters who loved him, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (Phillipa Soo) and Angelica Schuyler Church (Renée Elise Goldsberry). As muses during Hamilton’s life, Eliza and Angelica support Hamilton’s work (and marvel at his poor judgement when he has an affair). And after his untimely death in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr, Eliza and Angelica tell Hamilton’s story and burnish his legacy.
But it’s impossible to come to the end of the marvelous cast recording without wondering what Angelica in particular might have become had she had the opportunity to be something more than the sister-in-law to one figure in the American Revolution, wife to another and friend and hostess to other great people of her age.
Angelica’s contemporary, Abigail Adams, wrote one of the most eloquent reminders that the American Revolution wouldn’t be complete unless it freed American women as well as men, in a 1776 letter to her husband, John Adams, in which she hoped for news of a declaration of independence from Great Britain.
"By the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors," Abigail Adams warned. "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."
Adams was right about about the rebellion; women like Alice Paul would go on hunger strike and be arrested for the right to vote. And women are still working to end laws and "customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex."
The fight for real gender equality in American politics is more like a long guerrilla war than an openly-declared conflict with clear protocols for negotiating an end to it all. Even if Clinton wins the presidency in November, women are a long way from proportional representation in the House, Senate, governor’s houses and the federal judiciary.
None of which is to say that women haven’t found ways to accomplish extraordinary things even in political systems and climates that were hostile to their participation or that shut them out of the highest office in the land.
Long before Hillary and Bill Clinton billed themselves as two for the price of one, Eleanor Roosevelt served as her husband’s surrogate on the campaign trail and while he was in office, meeting with World War I veterans, advocating for displaced coal miners and pushing for racial equality in the application of New Deal programs; and this is only a partial list of her projects and priorities. After Franklin’s death, Eleanor would go on to serve as a delegate to the United Nations and one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And these are only a few women, the ones whose husbands brought them in proximity to power and whose influence was smaller than we might have hoped. I haven’t even begun to touch on the legions of American women who didn’t get to influence famous men through collegiality, marriage or friendship; the women who were disenfranchised and barred from public office by racist terror, poverty or other factors once the barriers erected against them on the basis of gender had been formally dismantled; the ones whose voices never echoed in the halls of power at all.
From this perspective, the exclusion of women from politics in general and the presidency in particular is not simply a matter of equality, or of redistributing power from men to women so the former, in the words of Abigail Adams, abandon "the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend."
Instead, by drawing on only half the population to staff our most important public offices,
America has wasted the talents of generations of women who might have served their country. Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate doesn’t mean that the country is ready to take advantage of all women have to offer it. But her victory in this year’s primary campaign is a necessary step towards an America that’s ready to accept everything women have to give.