When it comes to gender and presidential candidates, my position is simple: genitalia should be a minor factor at best. In an ideal world, people would create the necessary distinction between gender and competency, judging a man and a woman’s merits equally.
But for many Americans, part of a woman candidate’s appeal is precisely her genitalia. They are motivated to “break the glass ceiling” and usher in the ultimate symbol of women’s political liberation. In a sense, this means that some people want to see womanhood itself, as an abstract category, rise to the rank of presidency.
This symbolic dimension was captured by Jessica Valenti’s January article, Not A Man 2020. Her main conclusion can be summarized in the last two paragraphs, where she argues in favor of voting a woman into office simply because she isn’t a man.
But the desire for a symbolic victory may come with some unexpected consequences. This should be enough for us to reconsider whether voting a woman in for its own sake is as benign as it first seems.
An era of subjectivity
I’ve written elsewhere on how subjective truth is becoming an increasingly mobilizing factor in political engagement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the identity-focused ideology of the left. Identity politics is founded on the notion that the subjective experience of minorities gives them a unique, incorrigible understanding of the world. This is not objective because it is not accessible to most people: it remains irreducibly tied to experience, not facts.
This idea is what makes equal representation so important to the left. A panel of men, no matter how well educated, will never be able to give a fully comprehensive analysis on a topic since they lack the knowledge conferred by the experience of a woman. Therefore a woman’s presence at the table is more than just highly desirable — it’s necessary to get the job done.
This also explains the bizarre sentiment coming from the right that it is the white male who is the newest victim of political disenfranchisement. People who feel this way are reacting to the fact that, in leftist politics, their experience counts for nothing: there have no ‘subjective truth’ to use as political currency in the same way that a minority can.
The narrative of minority experience
Now that left-leaning politics has taken on the dimension of ‘subjective truth’, it has ventured to expand it beyond the individual. Although each person’s experience is unique — the complexities of our lives guarantee that — we can still make general inferences about the experience of certain groups. For that reason, what was previously the subjective truth of an individual becomes the subjective truth for an entire group of people: an overall narrative of what it’s like to be a person of that identity.
For that reason, leftist politics constructs a kind of abstract, mythical black person’s story, woman’s story, and so on. These narratives are replete with the trials and tribulations of the oppressed group, who must navigate in a world that implicitly favors members of the historically-privileged population (whites, males, etc).
These mythologies operate on broad, statistical realities, but their impact is deeply personal. It’s no surprise that the Democratic party has been able to rely on a large proportion of minority voters. It is the party which takes the minority experience, distills it into a story of oppression, then frames their own policies as the only remedy.
The ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ protest
We can find an example of this ‘mythical minority experience’ in our current discourse about abortion. Imagine: how difficult would it be for a staunchly pro-life woman to activate the Democratic base? I find it intuitive that despite whatever enthusiasm her gender may inspire, she could never find a home in the Democratic party.
This is because, for a substantial number of democratic female voters, the pro-life position is not part of the romanticized, mythological narrative of being a woman. The left has framed the abortion debate as the newest iteration of women’s civil rights: specifically, a female’s right to bodily autonomy. From the perspective of the left, then, the pro-life woman must necessarily appear like something contradictory; a species which is defeating itself.
Here we can find the true meaning behind those pro-choice protesters who dress up as the concubines from The Handmaid’s Tale. It wasn’t just a symbol for the kind of oppression that Democrats ascribe to anti-abortion legislation. It was also a kind of mockery reflected back at the pro-life camp: as if to say, ‘this is you, look what you are doing to yourselves!’
Walking a tightrope
Considering the prominence of the ‘minorities’ narrative’ on the left, we should reexamine the consequences of casting a symbolic vote for a female president. When a person desires to vote in a woman candidate for her womanhood itself, the immediate question should be asked: but what does womanhood mean to you? Or to put it another way:
To what extent would a woman president elected in part by the symbolism of her identity be beholden to this symbolic aspect?
This symbolic identification with an abstract ‘women’s story’ may cause expectations later into the president’s tenure. Essentially, I worry that the female president would find herself beholden to a small but substantial portion of her base who wants to see her do ‘what a woman would’ — whatever their definition of that is.
It isn’t so hard to imagine a situation where this might constrain the freedoms of an incumbent president. Consider, for example, the kind of scandal we are all too familiar with in our #MeToo era: a high-profile man is accused of sexual assault. I cannot imagine that, for the first female president, any reaction besides full and complete belief would be well-received by the public.
For a Democratic base, any other reaction (waiting for the evidence, or even doubting the story should it not be credible) would cause as much dissonance as a pro-life woman. This is because it would interfere with the symbolic role that the president is playing as a woman: as a ‘resister of the patriarchy’, her base may be disillusioned if she falls on the ‘unexpected side’ of certain policies or situations.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to gender. It also applied to Obama, as the first president of color: he represented the idea that an African American can succeed, his triumph was their triumph too, and so on. So then should we be surprised that, after the Trayvon Martin killing, he decided to say that “he could have been my son?”. His reaction to the event was most certainly influenced by his status as the first African American president: he too was beholden to those members of his base who expected him to act in the symbolic capacity that his identity conferred him.
So too, I think, an overly-zealous base may interfere with the objectivity of a woman president. Above all else, I think, we must never forget that a vote for the presidency is a vote for competence: we cannot let our symbolic projections — and their subjective undertones—sway the level-headed decision making of a leader.