America and Women in Power

Given that ​over seventy nations have seen female leadership​, why does the U.S. appear to feel threatened and intimidated by the prospect of a female president? More so, women in power in general?

Sexism is commonly mistaken for largely being in retreat in modern Western liberal democracies. This year alone we have seen sexism laced throughout American politics in particular. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress as the youngest member ever, however, despite this incredible achievement, she has faced backlash every step of the way. Whilst it is certainly not uncommon to strike some disapproval as a political figure, Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism has been tainted with sexism, leading one to question what her critics find more infuriating: her political ideology or her presence in Congress as a young woman? Whilst this question may to some ostensibly appear to be a far-fetched feminist over-scrutinisation, statistics show that​ ​almost half of all people feel men make superior political leaders​. As such, the reality is that Ms Ocasio-Cortez, like all other congresswomen and female leaders, is constantly required to prove her worthiness of being in Congress in a magnitude not required by her male colleagues.

If we are to meaningfully address gender bias, the population in its entirety needs to acknowledge both its existence and hindrance to the flourishing of society. As such, it is commendable that when confronted with sexism in Congress this past summer, Ms Ocasio-Cortez took the opportunity to invite others alongside herself to ​take to the floor of Congress​ and explicitly confront these sexist comments instead of dismissing them so as to avoid ‘rocking the boat’.​ ​There is no shortage of material identifying that male professionals are ​more likely to use demeaning and violent language against their female colleagues​ than male colleagues due to a sense of superiority. Hence, Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s summarisation of the event as a result of​ ​a sexist culture of ​“accepting violence and violent language against women”​ is accurat​e. ​The catalyst for this public condemnation was ​Representative Ted Yoho’s aggressive accost of Ms Ocasio-Cortez as they passed each other in Congress, referring to her as ​“a fucking bitch”​ after calling her ​“disgusting”​ for merely having expressed the view that poverty and unemployment were fuelling a rise in crime in New York City.

Representative Dean Phillips and Representative Ruben Gallego ​both publicly condemned the sexist nature of Yoho’s behaviour​, having both previously stated that they also believe poverty and unemployment to be catalysts for crime. Both Phillips and Gallego noted that they had never been approached about the matter with the hostility received by Ms Ocasio-Cortez and that it was not unclear as to why this was the case: sexism. Nor is this situation unique to lower levels of power. Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarked that, ​“they called me names for at least 20 years of leadership. You’d say to them, ‘Do you not have a daughter? Do you not have a mother? Do you not have a sister? Do you not have a wife?’ What makes you think you can be so…condescending?”​.

Taking into account Democratic nominee Vice President Biden’s age, 77, it is not inconceivable that, should he be elected into office, Senator Kamala Harris could become the first female President of the United States, especially given that we are in the midst of a global pandemic which is statistically more dangerous for the elderly. This fact, that by electing Biden we could potentially see a female President in the not so distant future, could prove dividing for some due to preconceived notions about a woman’s inability to be successful in the highest office, a misconceived prejudiced inspired view which is fuelled by the stereotypically masculine connotations associated with the term ‘commander in chief’. Given the stakes at risk in this election, it is vital that sexism does not play a role in assisting Trump’s continued presence in office. The American public needs to recognise any internalised sense that voting for a female Vice President is too controversial and rewire their brain to understand the root of this poorly founded stance. Voters, and everyone else as well, need to consciously engage and understand sexism in politics for what it truly is: the result of a poorly conceived illusion of women that draws a false dichotomy: you can be either feminine or a leader, never both. Astor has neatly summarised the dilemma facing all women seeking to participate in politics: ​“​Stereotypically feminine behaviour can lead voters to see women running for office as more likeable but less of a leader, while stereotypically masculine behaviour can make voters see them as more of a leader but less likeable.”​ It​ is therefore pivotal that the American public realises that the view that women cannot be both effective leaders and comfortable in their femininity is an outdated misogynistic falsehood which has the potential to create dangerous and damaging consequences if it is allowed to participate in the upcoming election and permit continued chaos of the Trump administration.

In addition, voters must not allow themselves to fall into the trap of ​‘sexism by proxy’​, believing that the majority of others will vote for male candidates over female ones out of sexist beliefs and therefore resigning themselves to the view that casting their vote for a woman would therefore be pointless. This idea is one of the factors that already contributed to Senator Warren being deemed a less viable presidential candidate, with many people saying that ​they would vote for a woman but did not believe their neighbour would​, thus making her undesirable for the ballot. With so much at risk in this election, it was deemed that Democrats needed a candidate that would not prove to be controversial within their own supporters, hence the disappointingly widespread view that ​”Americans just won’t elect a woman and the stakes, this time are too high.”​ ​Moreover, with the ability and willingness to tackle climate change as the emergency it is on the ballot this election, each vote is crucial to determining the fate of the planet. Voters must therefore refuse to become complacent slaves to sexist inclinations, voting for a man who will not assist in the saving of the planet merely because the idea of a woman in power is unsettling. This was the case in the 2016 election which found ​sexist attitudes contributing to Trump’s success​ over Clinton, history cannot repeat itself this time. This election, voters need to solely evaluate each pair of candidates for their qualifications and their vision for America. Not what they’re wearing, their physical appearance, or how they manage to balance work and family.

For those who would argue that the prospect of a female Vice President (and potential President) is unsettling due to an absence of empirical evidence of success in America, I direct you to observe the ​outstanding work achieved by New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden ​who has dealt a world-leading response to coronavirus, dealt with the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the ​Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption, launched New Zealand’s first Wellbeing Budget​, was the first Prime Minister to march in a Pride event, and passed the Equal Pay Amendment Bill this July. As a successful woman in power, Arden identifies that refusing to play into stereotypically masculine traits associated with leadership, such as needing to be the strongest or the most assertive, has been pivotal to her success in office. She noted that “​if we focus only on being seen to be the strongest, most powerful person in the room…we lose what we’re meant to be here for”​. ​As such, Arden leads by example for all political leaders that ​“​you can be both empathetic and strong”​, and that being male or female, or anything in between, bears no influence on your effectiveness as a leader. Instead, it is your ability to empathise and the values you promote which should be the measure of your success.

In short, if you are unsure as to whether a woman is suitable for office, the best way to realise the benefits and success of having a female leader is to elect one.

Written by Lauren Taylor

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