Had Bernie been Bernadette — The heartbreaking truth about American patriarchy
When I was 22, I got a death threat in the mail. I was the co-president of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). It arrived at our one-room office. My name was chicken-scratched on the envelope. He heard me interviewed on the radio. He told me I deserved to die. He warned me to watch my back.
I was elated! I wanted to keep it forever! But we had to turn it into the FBI because it was a death threat, and it was serious. The shared copier in the hallway was busted, as usual, we had no fancy scanner and phones didn’t have cameras, but I wanted badly to document it somehow. It marked me as a real activist. A real agent of change. A real revolutionary.
But a revolutionary I was not. I was a privileged white girl with highlights who proudly called herself a liberal feminist. The only way to change the system was to work within the system. “It’s the only one we’ve got,” I’d often repeat.
Electing women to office was, in my very young head, the slipstream path to equality, and I was very willing to play the game. I got off on the ideas of ballbusting in stilettos and hiding hairy armpits under power blazers. I was undercover in the old boy’s club because I made my entrance undeniable. I even earned the nickname “The Dictator.” I simply refused to pat anyone on the back for a bake sale. To be a senator by the time I was 35, I would have to be serious. I would have to burn some bridges. I would have to make some compromises.
My path actually looked a little like Hillary’s. I started a political life very young, wanted to make sweeping changes, marry a charismatic political mind, be a household name. She began college in 1965, the year before the founding of NOW. In my senior year, I was the youngest state president NOW ever had. Those 38 years did not undo the patriarchy, but they made a difference.
I would not be the First Lady of anything. I would be the governor. The president. The one. I could do it. Girl power. My grades were bad, I smoked pot, but I would be the rock-and-roll politician. The one with an activist past. My moving speeches on free daycare and filibusters against war would make Congress cool. I was willing to throw myself into the mess of politics and claw for power if doing so would change something for women, for all of us. I deeply believed that this was The Way.
But it was exhausting. I became severely depressed. I didn’t like the woman I became every time I landed in D.C. or put on airs because of the suit I was wearing. Power was accessible — or at least visible — but my personality was changing. Plus, the Bush presidency was a nightmarish sham, and the electoral losses of countless women I worked for wore down my belief in changing the system from within.
The layers of oppression present in American social and political institutions became unfathomable to me. No election could change it. No non-profit. No individual. What a crushing realization. The very thing you most believe in is the very thing that most oppresses. What I was too inexperienced to know was that it wasn’t up to me — or about me.
Now, I am 35, and I’m no senator. The political powerhouse I planned on being vanished because politics broke me into someone who barely believes in electoral change at all. Age did not make me more conservative, like everyone said it would. In fact, I’m far more radical than the college kid who worked on Tammy Baldwin’s congressional race. I talk to people about abortion as soon as I meet them and consider Arundhati Roy’s political essays to be beach reading.
This election, I was ready to vote for Hillary. I thought, “Alright, there’s an array of women I’d rather, but she’s done her time. There’s never going to be a dream presidential candidate. Just get into it. Get excited. She’s certainly more qualified for the position than anybody else on the planet.” But I kept quiet. For me, there wasn’t any passion behind Hillary’s candidacy. It should have been huge. She’s a pro-choice, Democratic woman, and I would invite Emily’s List to my bachelorette party.
When Bernie showed up, I panicked. Could that old dude pose a Nader-level threat? Would it mean losing to a Republican? I hoped that his presence would push Hillary to the left and make her better. Then, Bernie became an actual contender, which was exciting because it meant that millions of Americans actually want profound change, a tectonic shift that I want too. But nothing about supporting Bernie made me feel good. It didn’t make sense. He’s so lovable, and I love loving my candidates.
As Bernie gained momentum, his candidacy opened space for intolerable misogyny, including especially dispiriting vitriol from self-identified progressive men and women. It filled me with rage and sadness. The onslaught of venom directed toward a woman who played the any-means-necessary game of politics was a real trigger — where have all these player-haters been for the centuries this game has dominated our nation? Men have made Hillary’s choices, and far worse, on repeat, for all of our history, to little fanfare.
Are the sins of our institutions so terrible? Yes. Are those sins more terrible when committed by a woman? Seems so.
I never spoke about the Democratic candidates because it was so hard for me to reconcile not that I preferred Bernie but that my heart was broken for this woman I do not yearn to vote for. My heart was broken because even if we play by all the rules the boys set up, the boys demonize us for playing by the rules. Even if we fight for decades to have a spot, ultimately everybody decides, “Nah, thanks anyway, we’re going with the old white guy again.”
Nice (lifelong) try.
Yes, the old white guy is the radical, and I’m thrilled that his ideas are getting national attention, support, and legitimacy. He’s talking about the issues of us all. The important stuff. The necessary stuff. I am grateful to him and inspired by him. But there’s no denying that had Bernie been Bernadette you’d have to get tied to a stake to feel the Bern.
What does it mean to be a radical feminist woman who does not support Hillary because of her record, all the while knowing she would not be where she is with Bernie’s record as her own?
What does it mean that we are seduced by the stands Bernie has had the (white male) privilege to take?
What does it mean that the choice between Hillary and Bernie exists within our racist, sexist, capitalist system?
I want to see a massive change in our political frameworks and ideologies. A complete restructuring. Bernie embodies that in rhetoric and record. But Hillary. Hillary embodies it in package, doesn’t she?
What could it possibly mean to see a woman as commander-in-chief? Obama’s election and presidency certainly did not end racism, and the folks who thought it would don’t get it, but shifts occurred. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy started and changed the terms of the national debate. Beyoncé went from “Single Ladies” to “Formation”. White privilege, as a theory, is not exclusive to Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack anymore.
Can I forgive Hillary for being a politician and not a revolutionary to awaken the generations of girls who will think of a woman being president as something that is, instead of something that might be, one day, maybe. Girl power?
Can’t there be just one who is not a man? Even this one? This one who is more qualified than all the others? This one whose entrance would be undeniable if she had a penis?
I’m not saying Hillary would be the renegade choice if she were a man. I’m saying Hillary would be the next president if she were a man. No contest.
Take the issues and records and campaigns away. See these two candidates as archetypes for a moment. A woman of the institution — blonde, blue-eyed, Methodist, Ivy League-educated lawyer, mother, grandmother, Democrat, former Secretary of State and New York Senator who has worked in the White House and is known for her suits. A man of activism — grey haired, bespectacled, Jewish, father, grandfather, third-party affiliated, Socialist, former mayor of a progressive college town and current Vermont Senator, who is known for wild hand gestures and a thick Brooklyn accent.
Now switch the genders. Who wins?
And here I am. Heartbroken again because I vowed to never support a candidate just because of sisterhood. Here I am, with an imperfect woman my generation was conditioned to hate and an underdog hero talking about change that thrills me. Here I am thinking Hillary is presidential, and Bernie is revolutionary. I want revolution.
But isn’t a woman’s being legitimately more presidential than her male opponent a revolution itself?
I dismiss it like it’s nothing. We all dismiss it like it’s nothing, like the patriarchy doesn’t exist. Like we’ve been voting for 240 years. Like we were invited to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Like the Constitution includes us. Like Shirley Chisholm won. Like Gabby Giffords wasn’t shot. Like Assata Shakur isn’t on the terrorist list.
“Hillary? Ugh. Whatever. She sucks.”
She is the first woman who has a legitimate chance at being our president, and we hate her for it. I hate her for it. I am heartbroken over my own self-hate.
Hillary’s candidacy is allowed and designed by the patriarchy, and by design it leads to rejection. Because by the time we, as a people, are ready for a woman as our president, we are ready for so much more. Because by the time she made it to the upper ranks of the boy’s club, she’s just one of the boys.
Audre Lorde says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.* You try to change the system but the system gets stronger because you’re working it. That’s why Hillary is where she is. That’s why Hillary is what she is. But it was always rigged against her, against all of us. It always will be.
Until there’s a revolution, which a man will likely lead.
*Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider, 1984