Saturday, May 31, 2008

My Thoughts on Gender Politics and the US Election

US voters, pundits and Hillary Clinton herself are simmering about whether sexism has affected her chances of winning the democratic nomination. Yes, it certainly has. But I think the picture is more complicated than the general media story. On the one hand, nearly every Hillary supporter I know boils down their position to "it's time for a woman to have a chance." (Of course, that's a small-N, unrepresentative sample. But let's face it, sexism - or the desire to move beyond it - can work to a woman's advantage.)

And of those who are voting against Hilary in the primary because she's a woman, only a small minority, I warrant, will be doing it out of pure sexism. Here are two other ways that gender tips the balance in the absence of overt sexism:

1) Democrats want an electable candidate. Democrats who may themselves not be sexist but who put electability above political correctness would not choose a woman over a black man, for purely tactical reasons. After all, black men have broken every formal glass ceiling in the US long before white women. They had the right to vote 52 years earlier. They were allowed to serve in the military earlier. They were allowed into higher education earlier. If you had to choose between putting a black man or a white woman up against an old, white guy in a Presidential election and you cared about your party's win, you'd nominate the black guy. In other words, taking the reality of sexism into account in a primary season mitigates against nominating a woman to run against a man, regardless of whether you're personally sexist.

2) Democrats and Republicans both want a change candidate.
There is no other way to explain McCain's nomination or Obama's wild popularity. Because Clinton has been perceived as a status quo candidate for supporting the war in Iraq, she could no more have won the general election than she will win the nomination. So why wasn't the first viable female Presidential candidate a candidate for change? Again, because of gender politics. Women in leadership roles, especially those breaking glass ceilings, typically cannot afford to situate themselves too far to the feminized left of the political spectrum. Particularly in a hyper-masculinized political culture like the U.S., where military service is equated with leadership, Clinton's best strategy was to play up her foreign policy experience, national security credentials, and hawkishness. This would have worked brilliantly at many other historical moments. But not when the country is ready to end an unpopular war, reassess its foreign policy, and send a strong message to the world that they are shuffling off the Bush Administration's mortal coil. Gender politics, in short, had Hillary between a rock and a hard place. In this sense, because it would have been impossible for her to govern well even if somehow she were elected, and since future women's electoral chances hinge in many respects on her performance, it's probably a good thing for women that she won't take office.
This is true in another sense as well. If I had to guess, our first female President will not be a Democrat. And this will ultimately give the lie to those who assume that electing a female is equivalent to feminist politics. Don't forget, it was a female minister in Rwanda who orchestrated the mass rape of Tutsi women during the genocide. If you want to overcome a sexist society, a candidate's gender politics should be more important than his or her biological sex. To read about feminists for Obama click here and here.


Roy said...

Great and welcome analysis!

I have a related question: do you think that Nancy Pelosi's ascendency to Speaker had a positive, negative, or no effect at all on Hillary's campaign?

Diodotus said...

Great question - hard to say. On the one hand, the fact that she's third in line for the Presidency makes Clinton's campaign at once a bit less historic and also part of a rising tide, so that comes out in the wash. But Pelosi has been an opponent of Clinton's ever since she voted for the war, so that couldn't have helped. What do you think?

"; urchinTracker();