I don’t think anyone is surprised that a woman presidential candidate has set off a national debate about what it means to be feminist. It is not a surprise, but it is ridiculously frustrating.
We are in the midst of the craziest presidential election of my lifetime, and a woman has a legitimate shot at winning the White House. And yet, we are falling into old traps, letting others define and judge us. Women are turning against women. We are debating once again if women can lead and how they should lead.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright started a firestorm when she recycled her most well-known quote at a Hillary Clinton campaign event: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Feminist icon Gloria Steinem chastised female supporters of Bernie Sanders, suggesting they were just campaigning for him to meet boys.
I admire – even revere – these two women. But these statements stopped me in my tracks and prompted some serious soul-searching. I want a woman president, but I want her to win because she is the best leader, because she is the most qualified, and because she has the best vision for our country. Maybe that is pie-in-the-sky thinking, or maybe I feel that way because I am living precisely the dream that our feminist mothers and grandmothers worked so hard to achieve.
I fully realize that I am standing on the shoulders of these women each and every day. I didn’t have to fight for my opportunity to play high school sports or to go to college or to work on Capitol Hill. I chose when I had children, and I am making my own way in balancing career and family.
The response of many women, especially young women, to Albright and Steinem’s statements means that our mothers raised us right. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t do. We resist labels and doctrines. We want to be our own people. For me – and for many women – feminism today is about lifting women up, giving them choices and protecting equal opportunities. It is not about dogmas or a women’s-only club or special treatment.
But here’s the rub: While I don’t want to vote for a president just because she is a woman, there are many people who will vote – and who have been voting – for candidates simply because they are men. The long running stereotypes that women are too emotional, too weak, or too bossy to be leaders continue to haunt us.
Rapper Killer Mike underscored this continuing problem last week when he said he effectively reduced Clinton’s leadership and career to her biology, saying he wouldn’t vote for someone just because they had a uterus. That kind of statement is inflammatory, demeaning, and insulting.
I wish I knew the best way to advance the continued growth of women and the acceptance of the best person for the job. I don’t know what the next 50 years look like for feminism.
I do believe that each of us – especially women – has a real responsibility to consider the candidates, their values, and our nation’s future. We cannot stand on the sidelines. We have to exercise our hard-fought right to vote, to organize, and to make our voices heard.