Politics are just as much about gaining public favor as promoting good policies. But so many politicians have pitched to the public by using the marginalized minority group appeal that it has clouded the water—Americans often vote for politicians based on who they are as representations of some unique characteristic, like the first tattooed congressman or something equally specific.
Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly drew sharp criticism from women’s groups nationwide when he invited two female guests on his show “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss the potential downsides of Hillary Clinton’s rumored run for president. One of the guests, USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, said it may be difficult for a woman to appear tough when having to relate to foreign diplomats who do not respect women, which seemed to satisfy O’Reilly’s opinion that electing a female president would be a bad idea.
The fact that Americans are questioning whether or not the country is ready for a female president shows how backward Americans still are. First, Clinton’s primary job as the Secretary of State was to deal with foreign diplomats from countries where women do not have equal rights. Second, many other world leaders who hold positions of enormous power are female, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Indian President Pratibha Patil. Both Germany and India have thriving economies and are well-respected members of their diplomatic circles.
Most of the doubts about Clinton’s potential candidacy pertain to whether or not she will run for president in 2016. Her resume certainly supports a run—she spent three years as Secretary of State and has had an active political presence since her residency as first lady in the early ‘90s. Clinton is one of the most active women in Washington, D.C., alongside Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi and Michele Bachmann. According to annual Gallup polls, she has remained the most admired woman in U.S. politics for four years running. Considering her for the presidency is a natural step forward, especially because she maintains the respect of virtually everyone she works with in Washington.
But the press buzz is not about her qualifications. The tagline that accompanies the rumors is almost insulting: “Could Clinton be the first woman president?”
The first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull, ran in 1872 under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, and later Belva Lockwood ran in both 1884 and 1888, according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. The first woman was elected to Congress in 1917, just shy of 100 years ago. Today, 98 women serve in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and Pelosi was third in line for the presidency as Speaker of the House.
Every time an election comes around, there is inevitably someone nominated who fulfills some specific minority category—such as the first Asian-American female double amputee, in U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth’s case—and the winning party proclaims it a civil rights victory. Some of this is the publicity waltz, but the importance voters place on a candidate’s race, gender or sexual orientation could damage the integrity of American political races.
Social triumphs are important, but they should not function as an anchor for public sentiment. Diversity in politics should always be celebrated, but the issue extends beyond women. When Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, it was a huge leap for gay rights, but people sometimes forget his political accomplishments, remembering only that he was the first openly gay elected official. Sure, a large part of his political identity was wrapped up in his sexual orientation, but he was elected for both his equal rights agenda and fiscal policy.
Voters need to identify with their political candidates, but the importance of effective policies should not be lost to quirks.
Although a woman should have been elected president by now, Americans should not choose Clinton based solely on her gender in hopes of shattering the glass ceiling. When 2008 presidential hopeful John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee, the political sphere buzzed with the possibility that her popularity would lead to a Palin presidential campaign in 2012. However, the political community quickly realized through her comments and ideas that she would not be fit for national office, and the country’s voters should not elect someone unfit for the job simply because she is a woman.
Unless we stop categorizing our candidates, we risk trivializing their work and electing someone who could be potentially damaging to the public interest. Clinton should be heavily scrutinized if she makes a run for president in 2016, just like any candidate of more traditional characteristics. The same goes for any LGBTQ, minority or third-party candidate who does not fit into the historical pigeonhole of privileged white male presidents. Race, gender and sexual orientation do not necessarily affect performance any more than they affect a person’s ability to speak or think.