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Strong Female Lead

Yes, Agenda Trumps Gender—But Women Leaders Still Matter

A veteran activist explains why she believes we won't have the luxury of gender blindness until there's equality in leadership.

Yes, Agenda Trumps Gender--But Women Leaders Still Matter
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

Last weekend, feminist activist Gloria Steinem flippantly told Bill Maher that young, liberal women are flocking to the Sanders campaign because "the boys are with Bernie."

Leaving aside that Steinem was joking (if inartfully), or that Maher had kicked off the interview by complimenting her looks and pawing her belt, the flap points at a fundamental reality about gender in politics that we prefer to ignore: When women say they want to see more women leaders in general—or a woman president in their lifetimes in particular—it's judged negatively, as tokenistic, self-serving, or both.

One of the many reasons why that’s unfair is because it’s still predominantly women leaders whose agendas prioritize issues unique to women. Former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin puts it this way: "Living in a woman’s body makes the world look different on some—though far from all—issues." And it’s still predominantly their agendas, not their genders, that earn women leaders the support of women.

"Women’s Rights Are Human Rights"

In 1995, my husband and I pushed ourselves to the front of a crowd of thousands jostling in predawn rain, determined to be among the few hundred let into the auditorium to hear then first lady Hillary Clinton speak at the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women.

There, Clinton first delivered the lines that boldly defied global political sensitivities and still give me chills today: "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights once and for all."

It was a historic moment when we could believe in the possibility that the world would at last fully open its abundance to women. Hillary Clinton was a woman with an agenda—clear, courageous, and unequivocal.

Now, two decades later, Clinton is at the epicenter of another moment—a moment when it’s conceivable that a woman just might become commander-in-chief of the most powerful country in the world. A moment, too, when even Clinton's enemies admit she's easily the most experienced candidate in the field, so much so that the media initially began speaking of her as inevitable.

Senator Sanders’s win in New Hampshire yesterday shows that judgment was premature, putting the pressure back onto Clinton to demonstrate why women leaders still matter—for everyone.

Focusing On The Wrong Issues

Around the same time that Steinem was taking heat for her comments to Maher, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was, in the New York Times’s account, "scolding" other women for backing Sanders. It wasn’t the first time Albright had said, "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women"—a line I've heard her deliver many times to thunderous applause.

But this time, it earned her a share of the rebuke that's been heaped onto Steinem. Both women walked back their comments early this week, with Steinem apologizing on Facebook for her "talk-show interruptus" and Albright tweeting her clarification: "I have long believed there is a seat of honor reserved for any woman who takes the time to help another woman and a special place in hell for those who do not."

Let’s get one thing clear: Every other group votes its interests. That’s what democracy enables and encourages us to do. The majority of the white men who control the lion’s share of corporate wealth typically vote Republican, for instance, as is their right. Over 90% of African-Americans voted for Barack Obama (only to get criticized for doing so). The fact is that we all tend to vote for people whom we perceive reflects our values and will best protect our interests.

We delude ourselves into thinking we are being purely objective, as Elizabeth Thornton documents in great detail in her book The Objective Leader, then tend to suffer the negative consequences of these self-delusions.

But one thing no voter can doubt is that the first female president, should she be Clinton or any other, will not be perfect in every way. Figure the odds of any president meeting that standard. It’s only when we have full gender equality that we’ll have the luxury of complete gender neutrality in our choice of leaders.

Back To Agendas

Until then, American women have many good reasons to vote together to create the tipping point for women seeking high public office. And indeed, women are smart enough to know a candidate’s agenda is more important than gender in the final analysis. Carly Fiorina most likely won’t win because her agenda is offensive to many women, particularly her opposition to family planning services and lack of support for equal pay legislation. We’ve also seen gratuitous token support for women backfire as Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump did. Have you seen her on TV as his surrogate lately?

It’s Albright herself who’s so far offered the best antidote to the dust-up she’s found herself in; her tweet continues: "When it comes to politics, you should support the candidate whose agenda best reflects your views, regardless of their gender." Then she goes on to name several issues of direct concern to women that Clinton is well-known for championing.

This moment of controversy is an opportunity Clinton and her campaign might seize in order to get back the center stage with the message that, back in 1995, was powerfully progressive. Today, Clinton is a seasoned stateswoman, for whom earning her political chops is seen by many as a mark of the old guard. Fresh off yesterday’s New Hampshire win, Sanders (ironically, even more a veteran politician than Clinton) is demonstrating how most enthusiasm gathers around the presumed insurgent—the person, idea, or product that transports us to new places, intellectually and emotionally. That's the point that I believe Steinem was alluding to.

The truth is that there are still new spaces America needs to explore, and the vision Clinton framed more than two decades ago is far from realized. For Clinton to succeed, she'll need to articulate in clear and compelling language how her agenda, and not just her gender, will get us there. To smash through what she's called the "highest and hardest glass ceiling," Clinton must offer all voters a bigger and more explicit sense of what she intends to do for the American people today, tomorrow, and beyond.

That’s a leadership challenge, pure and simple. Personally, I believe she can do it. But will she?

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