Saturday, June 10, 2006

Where are all the girls, part CCXLVIII
Anne Kornblut has a piece in the New York Times about the lack of a woman American President. Ironically, her piece is ghettoized in the style section.* Kornblut's piece uses as a launching point the meeting at an event Thursday of Hillary Clinton, a potential president, Geena Davis, a fictional president, and Michelle Bachelet, the newly inaugurated president of Chile. Though the article is mostly about the barriers facing Sen. Clinton in her quest for the top, Kornblut does make a brief excursion into the more general question of why the US hasn't already elected a woman president.
For decades now, countries from Pakistan to Israel to India to Britain have been elevating women to the role of chief executive, a phenomenon that Mrs. Clinton's supporters are studying closely as they lay the groundwork for 2008.


Those who study the larger trend, however, say there are concrete reasons no woman has ever come close to winning the American presidency. There are fewer political dynasties here of the sort that have given women the stamp of authority elsewhere, like the Bhuttos in Pakistan or the Ghandis in India. (Mrs. Clinton, of course, is a product of a mini-dynasty).

The electoral system here is more challenging than a parliamentary one, in which a woman (Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Golda Meir in Israel) is elected only by members of her own party, not the entire electorate.

Then there is the political pipeline in the United States, which now, with 8 female governors out of 50, and 14 female senators of 100, still offers a limited number of experienced candidates for the presidency.

After lingering on the political pipeline as a possible explanation, Kornblut says:
Experts who scratch their heads over how many women are elected as chief executives elsewhere — including Ms. Bachelet, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and Angela Merkel in Germany — point to sociological and cultural reasons why Mrs. Clinton is one of only a few women to have been viewed seriously as a presidential candidate.

Yes, "sociological and cultural reasons" are surely important, but what are they? Sadly, she only mentions the toughness issue. Would a woman "go wobbly" when issues of war and peace came up? The suspicion that women lack the requisite toughness does dominate the discussion whenever the question of women leaders is raised, but it is far from the only "sociological and cultural reason" why Americans worry about women leaders.

No doubt, many readers will look at the toughness argument and cut to the underlying issue; the argument as just one manifestation of the level of sexism which still exists in American society. But that in itself is a sort of non-explanation. Neither Turkey nor Chile is possessed of the most enlightened and feminist cultures, yet both has elected a woman to their highest political offices. What is different about our sexism and their sexisms? What else is different about our cultures?

I suspect, based on nothing more than the evidence of my own eyes and experience, that the reasons are two-fold. First is the nature of the American religious landscape, and second is the nature of American populism.

The culture of the United States is overwhelmingly Protestant, while Turkey is Muslim and Chile Catholic. Our Protestantism in not more sexist than their Islam or Catholicism--the opposite is probably true--but the role of our religion in society is very different. In Catholic and Muslim countries, institutional religion has traditionally wielded tremendous political power.

Except for a very brief moment following our first colonial settlement, the American Protestant churches have not had that kind of political power. At the founding of the republic, our churches were relatively politically weak and the authors of the Constitution worked to maintain that situation. Separation of church and state was more of an act of institutionalizing the status quo than of evicting the church from power. Politics in our country were a secular affair from the very beginning. Most of the time we take that separation for granted.

In Catholic and Muslim countries, the road to democracy has involved a more dramatic break with political authority by religious institutions. In Europe and the Middle East, the traditional religious authorities have often controlled the schools, the courts, and even formed the local government for entire municipalities and provinces. Secular democracy has meant prying control of these institutions away from the religious authorities and giving them to the government. The line between church and state in such countries is very clear. Because many parties are expressly secular, this creates special opportunities for women to defy religious norms.

Rather counter-intuitively, the lack of political power by our church organizations has actually strengthened the power of religion in the United States. Our Protestantism defines roles in our culture in a way that doesn't allow for a non-churched area. We all live in one big semi-churched region. While, in many ways, we are a more feminist society that either Turkey or Chile we don't allow our political leader to escape religiously defined rules of behavior.

This generalized atmosphere of acceptable behavior defines my second point, too. The truest, simplest explanation for why we haven't elected a woman president in the United States is that the right woman hasn't come along. But who is "the right woman?" If a woman of extraordinary abilities came along, we would hate her for her extraordinariness. We don't like exceptional people in America. We are probably the only country on the planet where "elite" is an insult.

Turkey or Chile are both countries that allow special rules for special people. Sometimes this attitude can endanger a democracy, but sometimes it can allow for the rise of people who would not normally rise. A normal woman can't become president in either of those countries, but a special woman can. In America, we would only elect a woman who is special in her unspecialness. We have twice elevated a shallow, alcoholic frat boy over highly qualified technocrats, because the frat boy seemed like someone we could sit down and chat with. The technocrats seemed too smart. A woman president would have to be perfect, but she would have to be perfectly average.

Of course, all these observations come with the qualification that it's really a lot more complicated than this. A proper analysis of the roles of gender, religion, and populism in American politics covers many, many bookshelves.

Georgia10, one of the front-page posters over at Kos these days, also commented on this article and I want to respond to something she says in conclusion.
The internet I think will revolutionize the role of women in politics. Because online, behind asexual monikers, women of all faiths and colors and experiences can pull up a chair to the national table and participate--indeed, even lead--the political discussion without having to deal with preconceived notions of what a female in politics must do, or say (or look like!). And if and when we do decide to remove the anonymous veil or reveal the fact that we are indeed, women, and damn proud of it, there is a sense of accomplishment.

I think georgia10 is blurring three things together here and that she will be disappointed at the extent of the internet's revolutionary impact on gender balance in at least two of those areas. Political discussion is not the same as politics. The internet, and especially the blogosphere, is a new and mildly revolutionary form of political commentary and political activism. It is not a new form of electoral politics.

The return of powerful anonymous commentators presents some great opportunities for women writers and I suspect there will be many more women in the front ranks of the next generation of top tier media pundits than there are now. I fully agree with her on that point. In activism, I think the internet will have less of an impact, for the reason that women are already better represented in activism than they are in punditry or electoral office. I think georgia10 will be most disappointed in how much impact the internet will have on the gender balance in electoral politics. For the most part, punditry and activism are not great paths to higher political office. More to the point, no one is elected to office as an anonymous internet handle. Before a career in electoral politics could begin, a writer would have to become a flesh and blood person, with a gender. At that point, all of the same old barriers kick in. I doubt as if being a well-respected voice is enough to break down those barriers. That's not to say that those voices won't be part of the fight to remove the barriers, I just don't think their part will be exactly revolutionary.

* To be fair, this is not a gesture of contempt by the editors for the subject matter, Kornblut's column regularly appears in the style section. Frank Rich lived in the style section for a while, too. The Times style section regularly has more serious commentary than you would expect to find in the style section of any other paper.

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