“Flawed”: Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good If You’re A Female Presidential Candidate
“Perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Those are the words I keep coming back to after the improbable, yet all-too-cliche, election of Donald Trump. Of course we empowered the least qualified and most dangerous man to the highest office of the land. Because his female opponent wasn’t perfect.
All throughout Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign, one word followed her around everywhere she went: ”flawed.” Even when newspapers endorsed her and advocated for her promotion, they needlessly caveated Clinton with this adjective. The Chicago Sun-Times described her as “flawed, but upstanding.” The Charlotte Observer went one step further and put it in their headline: “For president: A flawed, but capable, Clinton.” And the Cincinnati Enquirer even played into the “both sides” of it all by stating: “Presidential elections should be about who’s the best candidate, not who’s the least flawed. Unfortunately, that’s not the case this year.”
“Flawed,” when attached to Clinton, didn’t take on the connotation of “We all make mistakes and that’s okay.” That’s reserved for men. Instead, it became an insidious reminder of the perfection that the world expects from women. This impossible standard is a trap because when we inevitably fall short of meeting it, society tells us that we only have ourselves to blame: “If only you were more of this or less of that, then you would have succeeded.”
But that framework of understanding is a farce, as Sady Doyle explains, on the myth of the Exceptional Woman:
“Patriarchy has always had room for the Exceptional Woman — the one woman smart enough, sweet enough, strong enough, soft enough, pure enough, sexy enough to satisfy all of our culture’s contradictory demands on women, and thus make it to the top of a sexist system on merit alone. Patriarchy needs that woman. She provides men with an excuse to blame women for their own pain and struggles while simultaneously assuring women that sexism only needs to be outwitted to be overcome. She tells us that the system is survivable for women — you simply have to be the right kind of woman.”
For many liberal men in the Democratic primary, that Exceptional Woman™ was Elizabeth Warren. “I would vote for a woman if it were Warren!” became the defacto “I’m not a sexist, I swear!!!” shield. As Jef Rouner observed in April:
Because Warren decided not to run, it is perfectly safe to project all our hopes for a liberal utopia on her and dump all our vague anxieties regarding the rise of a woman to the last great seat of traditionally male power on Clinton. It’s win-win because it’s imaginary and we control all the variables.
To expand upon this point further, Tara Saurus asserted:
Whenever I hear or read, “I just wish it were a different woman, not Clinton,” I want to laugh. There is not a woman on this earth who wouldn’t be hated and villainized for encroaching on territory that has belonged to men for centuries. Oh, you like Warren? Me too. Run Warren through this machine and see how she comes out. Remember just a couple of years ago when Clinton was a beloved meme, texting on a plane in her shades? And her decades voted as one of the most admired people on earth? No woman gets to ride a white horse to high-level leadership positions. No, you get dragged in the mud for making choices that differ from the system, then you get dragged in the mud when you fall in line with the system. There isn’t a single female face in American politics that would reach her level of candidacy without ploughing through rabid misogyny veiled as ethics and dissent. Women don’t walk into male spaces unmarred, unhated. We straddle the daily work of uplifting ourselves and others and operating under the leaders that push us down, balancing choices precariously. We come in scarred, injured, bleeding and still — WE PUSH IN. For decades straight. Unwanted, unwelcome, and often at a disadvantage, we persevere because we **must** make room for ourselves; that invite to the table never comes. That’s how this works, not just at the presidential level, but at every level of superlative power. 240 years of keeping us out. I assure you, there’s not a single one of us that wouldn’t wind up the same.
And as if overcoming a patriarchal system that has shut women out of executive power wasn’t enough to contend with, Clinton faced unprecedented obstacles along the way, including a foreign power (Russia) hacking our election and a domestic agency (the FBI) interfering with it at the 11th hour. Yet despite the extreme nature of these roadblocks, we *still* blamed the woman for failing to clear this skyscraper of a bar. Because she was “flawed,” we didn’t ask how our country could elect this horrible man, but instead wondered why the woman didn’t run a pitch-perfect campaign.
As Kara Calavera so articulated laid out, “Ironically, Hillary Clinton’s ‘fatal flaws’ were due to her transparency, and not, as the media claims, her secretive nature.” When it came to decisions around public disclosure, Clinton was stuck between a rock and a hard place: Decades-long attacks had produced little evidence of wrongdoing, yet they had imprinted so many negative — and often false — notions on the electorate. This put her in a precarious position: As a public official, she wanted to overcome the “untrustworthy” label that had plagued her for years, but as a woman she knew that any information she put out there would be ruthlessly examined through a microscope.
And indeed, Clinton was arguably the most forthcoming presidential candidate of 2016; she released her full tax returns, she supplied doctor’s notes about her health, and she was open about the inner workings of the Clinton Foundation. But it was the worst of both worlds: Everything she offered up turned into a witch hunt to find corruption that did not exist, and when she became understandably protective in reaction to those efforts to undermine her, she was labelled as too guarded. Clinton just couldn’t win.
So while (white, male) pundits give the same mediocre take over and over again on how “Russia didn’t prevent Clinton from visiting Wisconsin,” I’ve been ruminating on the word “flawed” and how it was wielded like a weapon against Clinton. What is the path forward for female candidates when we just witnessed the most qualified woman lose out to the least competent man? For women who aspire to be President, will they continue to drown in double standards, or will they be able to assert their equal humanity to men without being trapped by it? I don’t think there’s a single answer for every woman. Like anything, one’s life circumstances and social standing as they intersect with history matter.
But here’s what I think all women can take away from the 2016 election: There’s no room for superfluous self-doubt anymore. Strangely enough, I think that Hillary’s loss can embolden us to act more confidently and deliberately than ever before. There’s something oddly freeing about witnessing a woman with the utmost privilege do everything “right” and not be rewarded. It means that we don’t have to second-guess ourselves all the time or play by the rules anymore; we can re-write them any way we damn please.
So will we see a female Commander-in-Chief in our lifetime? I honestly can’t say. Throwing the patriarchal playbook to the wind doesn’t mean that institutionalized barriers will disappear overnight. And certainly there is a lot less flexibility for women who aren’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, etc.
But here’s what I do know: If and when a woman does break that highest and hardest glass ceiling, it sure as hell won’t be pretty.
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