The First Woman President

Column: It’s not Hillary

• March 7, 2014 5:00 am


So long have I waited for the glass ceiling to be shattered, for the barrier to be breached, for the blessed moment to arrive. I had thought that the day that begins with a woman in the Oval Office, with more than 50 percent of our population feeling truly represented, was a day long in coming. I had thought 2008 would be the year we made history, with Hillary Clinton coming so close to the Democratic nomination, with Sarah Palin becoming the first woman on the Republican ticket.

But it was not to be. America reverted to her old habits of sexism and gynophobia, denying Clinton her place in the sun, even questioning the maternity of Palin’s youngest child. Barack Obama was elected to the White House. The contest four years later was, in sheer numbers, a regression: In 2012 no women were present on any major party ticket. Obama won his second term.

Only now do I see how mistaken I have been, how shallow my thinking, how guilty of succumbing to the confines of the hetero-normative imagination. If Bill Clinton "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas," and for that reason could be named by a Nobel laureate as "our first black President," "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime"; if Barack Obama "had to come out of a different closet," had to learn "to be black the way gays learn to be gay," if his "discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation" mirrors "the gay experience," making him "the first gay president"; and if his positions on Israel make him, in the words of a former employee, "the first Jewish president," then our ascription of gender identity need not be based on chromosomes or sexual characteristics, on hair style or costume, on self-identification, on arbitrary and socially constructed discourses of macho and feminine. It is clear to me now that we have had a woman president since January 20, 2009. Barack Obama’s story is America’s story. It is our story. It is the female story.

Strong women have surrounded Obama since childhood: his mother, who raised him after his deadbeat dad fled to Kenya; his grandmother, "who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to become vice president at a local bank"; his magnificent wife and First Lady Michelle Obama, before whom we all bow down; Michelle’s mother Marian Shields Robinson; the fierce pixie Valerie Jarrett; his billionaire heiress secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker; the gaunt and severe and silver-haired Kathleen Sebelius. Obama’s ascent to power, Sharon Jayson pointed out long ago, testifies to both the struggles and successes of single moms. From these ladies and others Obama drew lessons in how to raise his two beautiful daughters, in the value of women to American society, in the art of wearing mom jeans.

Throughout his presidency Obama has displayed sensitivity to women’s issues, women’s concerns, women’s priorities. He appointed two women to the Supreme Court. He established the game-changing Council on Women and Girls. He signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. The mascot of his 2012 campaign was a woman. He is a staunch defender of reproductive rights, supporting sex-selective and partial-birth abortions, opposing any restrictions on abortions in the final trimester of pregnancy, calling Sandra Fluke to affirm his support, demanding the Little Sisters of the Poor provide contraception to their nun employees. His is a nurturing presidency, emphasizing children’s nutrition, early childhood education, primary and secondary school reform, the affordability of higher education, the challenges facing boys and young men of color, universal health care, the high cost of hip replacement for aging parents. He knows that "when women succeed, America succeeds." And women know he is one of them. In 2012 he won their vote 55 percent to 44 percent.

This is not my opinion: Harvard professor Joseph Nye, citing his colleague Steven Pinker, has noted, "The parts of the world that lag in the decline of violence are also the parts that lag in the empowerment of women." In America women are becoming more empowered all the time. What Pinker teaches, Nye says, is that "women have evolutionary incentives to maintain peaceful conditions in which to nurture their offspring and ensure that their genes survive into the next generation."

Barack Obama shares these incentives. His foreign policy abjures the stereotypically male, the reflexively violent, the stubbornly confrontational, and the unthinkingly gruff. He is not afraid to be called a wimp, not only because using such language is a micro-aggression, not only because such harmful words depend on categories and expectations of "male" behavior that are hopelessly outdated in the twenty-first century, but also because he is better than that "bored, tough guy shtick."

Discussion, consultation, negotiation, and open hands are preferable to violence and clenched fists. Violence is not the answer. If violence were the answer then Bashar Assad would still be in power (he is), and would still maintain his chemical weapons (he does). If violence were the answer then Vladimir Putin would not have left Georgia alone (his troops occupy it), nor would he have left Ukraine alone (he invaded last weekend). If the world still operated along antiquated notions of hegemony and primacy, China would not be disarming (its defense budget is up 12 percent over last year).

Words are more powerful than bombs. Words scared Assad into not using chemical agents against his own people (he’s gassed them repeatedly). Words stopped Putin from invading Crimea (the invasion was rapid and successful). Words convinced China to rescind its Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea (it’s still there, and the Chinese are planning another for the South China Sea). Words persuaded the Iranians to give up their nuclear program (they say they will never surrender the right to enrich). Words ended construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank (construction doubled in 2013), and established peace in the Middle East (Abbas won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state).

"In terms of stereotypes, various psychological studies show that men gravitate to the hard power of command," Joseph Nye wrote in 2012, "while women are collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction and persuasion." He adds, "Recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a ‘feminine style.’" Collaborate, intuitive, soft, attractive, persuasive—these attributes of the "feminine style" are perfect descriptors of Barack Obama’s relation to the world, or at least to those parts of the world that are not Republican or Israeli.

Nye describes the path women must travel to reach power: "Women are generally not well integrated into male networks that dominate organizations," he writes, "and gender stereotypes still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers." What he writes about women could also be written about Obama, who disdains glad-handing and networking, who "doesn’t really like people," who in domestic politics has given up entirely negotiations with the "male networks that dominate organizations" such as the House of Representatives, who every day is hampered by the stereotype that he is brilliant, logical, debonair, pragmatic, witty, world-changing, deeply read, hip.

Yet Obama has overcome such barriers. He is one of a kind. Knowing their struggles, sharing their opinions, committed to abortion whenever and to contraception for all, supportive of equal pay for equal work, practicing the soft power of defense cuts, of negotiations, of needling, of chiding, delivering geopolitical statements from pre-school classrooms, snapping selfies with the girls at state funerals, displaying almost every trope of womanhood outlined by the theoretician of soft power himself, Barack Obama has as much of a claim as the next girl to being the first woman president. Do not "other" him. Love him. Celebrate him. Open your mind, as I have. And Hillary: Take note. We already have a woman in the White House.