Why should we expect to have a women President, anyway?
Most feminism I’ve encountered assumes, usually quite tacitly, that the only differences between men and women are the biological, which they can’t control, and how they’re perceived by society, which can be questioned. By omission, then, women are just as innately good at, say, programming or engineering. The gender gap in technical jobs is therefore attributed to societal factors, such as how we provide our boys with Legos but bombard our baby girls with Barbies who believe, “math is hard”. I like to call this the accessibility argument, as it implies that under fair social conditions, gender gaps disappear because another X chromosome has no effect on one’s aptitude for white collar jobs.
It’s this context that made this quote, an excerpt from an article on Vox.com, so tantalizing:
It is not that no women possess a public magnetism; Sarah Palin could rock a room, and Elizabeth Warren can work a crowd. But the quality we adore in presidential candidates — the ability to stand up and speak loudly, confidently, and fluently on topics you may know nothing about — is gendered.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both excellent yellers, and we love them for it. Nobody likes it when Hillary Clinton yells.
The author starts with the biological , that some women do “possess a public magnetism”. And he ends with social perceptions, that Trump and Bernie are allowed to yell but Hillary isn’t. But right in between there’s the faintest glimmer of light through a crack in the accessibility argument. The quality we adore in presidential candidates is gendered. It’s possible the author didn’t even intend to imply what I’m seeing; after all he refers to the “quality we adore”, not the ones that make a president actually good. But bear with me. What if, given fair social conditions, the pool of people who’d be a good president wasn’t split 50/50?
If you ask any group of kindergarteners, they’ll probably probably have some ideas about gender differences. They might say that boys think they’re more important than girls, or that girls are quieter than boys. But these are just (my suppositions of) gender stereotypes held by six year olds. The accessibility argument is popular for a reason — the line between sexist assumptions and actual gender differences, if any exist at all, is piano-wire thin.
The other hurdle is that — back to our not-50/50 split — as soon as you say which gender the split favors, you incur the wrath of either women authors or male trolls. If we remove social favoritism and discover there’s still a bias, society rushes in to correct the balance. Such responses largely conflate differentiating by sex with discriminating by sex. By analogy, if I said that an able-bodied person can complete the 100m dash faster than anyone is a wheelchair, then you’d agree on the basis of obvious biological fact. But if I said that an able-bodied person could be a better programmer, or writer, or politician, then you’d get upset. Once again, the prevailing wisdom is that one’s legs — or one’s genitals — and one’s brain are completely separate.
But are we completely sure about that? I cannot envision a female Donald Trump, even with the help of Sarah Palin. There’s a reason that reckless, violent, bone-headed, and profane are all covered by ballsy.
The converse, then, is that maybe slightly more women than men are qualified to be President, assuming an equal playing field. Maybe there are actual gender differences that mean we’d be better off, not just with 50% women in Congress, but 60 or 70%. Or, maybe the same unfair social playing field that makes it hard for women to get elected is what makes them good at the job. As we level the playing field, we lose both of these distinctions. If so, then gender can’t be a shortcut — we just need to get better at picking our leaders.