In the summer before 1992’s presidential election, the toy company Mattel, which had given Barbie a series of historically masculine professions — astronaut in 1965, surgeon in 1973 — decided to award its famous doll a new role: presidential candidate. Candidate Barbie wore a ball gown. The dress had a silver bustier and a star-spangled skirt, and its wearer’s platinum-blond hair fell in waves to her waist. It was an outfit entirely inappropriate for the campaign trail, but then again, it was Barbie.
That, incidentally, was in the middle of the “Year of the Woman,” in which an unprecedented five women were elected to the U.S. Senate. The country was trying to figure out what the first female American president should look like and symbolize. It still is. We still are.
We still are, even as we’ve gotten closer than ever before to that milestone, even as a woman is about to be nominated by a major political party for the first time and the cautious, heartful hope felt by some people is balanced by the outright hatred of others.
When I posed the question, school-assignment-like (What would it mean to you to have a female president?) to a thousand-odd friends on Facebook, the responses came back perfunctorily and practiced, as if never-ending election coverage had taught everyone how to talk in sound bites: the momentousness, the symbolism, the importance of not voting for any candidate, male or female, because of gender. Repeatedly, people said they’d like to elect the first female president if for no other reason than they were tired of endlessly talking about what it would mean. We’re over it, they said. Even before the moment has happened, we’re over it.
But are we?
Think of the Night of Terror in 1917, in which 33 women protesting outside the White House were arrested and beaten, dragged to jail and kept there for the crime of thinking that women should have the right to vote. One of them, after watching her cellmate’s head bashed against a metal bedframe, had a heart attack. Or think of Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, elected in 1916, when American women in many states couldn’t have cast a ballot for her. Or of Abigail Adams, in 1776, urging her husband to “remember the ladies,” aware with each quill stroke that a woman’s only hope at the time was the compassion of a man.
“I remember, in third or fourth grade, Michael Dukakis and George [H.W.] Bush were running, and my class had a mock election,” says Dana Brown, the executive director of Pennsylvania’s Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. “And it became really crystallized. The boys were the ones who wanted to participate. I was the only girl who decided I wanted to be president. It was me versus a kid named Mike.” (Mike won).
That’s one moment from Brown’s life. Here’s another, 30 years later:
“My 8-year-old niece recently asked my sister-in-law whether girls can be presidents,” Brown says. The mother said they could, of course, and then wondered aloud why her daughter was asking. The girl pointed to the pictures on the back of her history textbook; she’d noticed that all the presidents marching across the jacket were boys.
When people talk about gender equality in politics, they often point to this idea: It’s not the first female president who matters, but all the ones who come after her. Generations of girls need to see by example that women can be presidents so that they can aspire to be presidents themselves. A man, a white man at least, might not understand what it is to enter a room and feel his eyes scramble for purchase until they land on another person who looks like him. But all women know this feeling, the comfort of another treble voice, the possibility of a similar perspective, the prospect of a borrowed tampon. It matters if the room is the Oval Office.
For decades, women have been trying to get into this room: Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina. With each opportunity, the stakes are a little higher. If the first female president had been elected in 1796, on the heels of George Washington, she could have been just another candidate, with a bad temper or a wandering eye or whatever human frailty we’ve grown to accept in the leaders of the Free World.