On Wednesday, The Independent published an article asking eight women how Hillary Clinton would change the country as president. The women, all attending a rally at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, said a lot of optimistic things, with phrases, like “glass ceiling,” “anything will be possible for women,” and “women will benefit" among them. A 25-year-old legal intern quoted in the piece said that little girls under a President Clinton would be able to "wake up in the morning and think, ‘I can be anything I want.'" Another supporter, age 45, is quoted as saying a Clinton presidency will have a tremendously positive "psychological effect" on women.
To be fair, many of these women also expressed admiration for Clinton’s policies and experience, and toward the end of the piece, The Independent noted that these women don’t want Clinton to be president just because she's a woman. But to me, the underlying message of the article was that her presidency will be unquestionably awesome for women. There’s so much contagious optimism that one almost forgets that Clinton mentions the current president at all. The article quotes Clinton's praise for Barack Obama at the rally:
I don’t think president Obama gets the credit he deserves. Everything he did was against a wall of implacable hostility from the Republicans.
However, Clinton's nod toward Obama is worth more than a glance. It may foretell what her prospective White House tenure would — and wouldn't — mean for women.
When Obama was elected president in 2008, it was a massively symbolic win for African Americans. This is obvious, and no one in their right mind would ever say it didn’t matter — a lot. But eight years later, what has that symbolism wrought?
No one could have reasonably expected a few years of black leadership to bring down racism, with all its tentacles so deep in our economic system, our educational system, every other system. But didn't many of us hope things would have improved? I must admit that I (maybe naively?) hoped they would.
Hostility and brutality against African Americans is still horrifyingly loud and clear in 2016. We live in a country where #BlackLivesMatter is met with #AllLivesMatter, and police shootings of unarmed black people – while they have always been massively disproportionate – seem to hit the news cycle each week and pass through it routinely.
Jamelle Bouie of Slate has already written a very good article on how the rise of Donald Trump and his angry white voters is a result of racist backlash to Obama’s presidency, so I’m not going to belabor that point. But it’s important to keep that backlash in mind when we talk in breathless excitement about just how good a female president would be for women.
Before this gets all twisted, let me be clear: Of course we should have a female president. We should have many female presidents. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict that Clinton’s presidency would bring with it a greater externalization of sexism, just as Obama’s presidency has been met with loads and loads of racism. There is a reason that your uncle whom you’d never before heard talk about politics or speak his internalized racism out loud will now not shut up about Trump. People don’t like seeing those they are biased against – to whatever degree they acknowledge or are even aware of it – in positions of power, and it makes them louder, bolder, and more angry.
When we talk about how “good” a female president will be for women, we need to think about how to prepare for the buckets of sexism that will accompany her. Just look at the tenor of the election cycle so far, the sexism that Clinton has attracted simply by running – existing – as a woman. Look at the rise of the Bernie Bros and their sexist memes. Look at the thinkpieces devoted to her hair. She’s not even the nominee yet.
That’s even before the tsunami of sexism on the GOP side – proposing punishing women who have illegal abortions, defunding Planned Parenthood, or breaking out the My Wife Is Hotter Than Yours meltdown.
While these developments are by no means a response to Clinton’s candidacy, we can also see that her possible breaking of the White House glass ceiling has done nothing to quell our country's problems with sexism. Should women be excited at the thought of having a female leader running the United States? Absolutely. But expecting the presidency to be a panacea for sexism and the problems women face is absolutely wrong.