I wondered when I was a child what it would take for a woman to become president. Now I am watching as Hillary gets closer than any woman ever, and I am overwhelmed by the sight of just what, exactly, it takes.
When I was in fifth grade, I had to memorize the list of US presidents. At that time, there were 40 of them. To help me remember them, I looked at a series of their portraits contained in my parents’ set of encyclopedias, as I sat cross-legged on the orange shag carpeting of our living room while a re-run of “Barney Miller” played on the telly.
To this day, I can conjure the cross stare of Millard Fillmore and the Ichabodian visage of William Henry Harrison.
There was something about all those faces, first rendered in oil and then reprinted for my perusal, that made me ask my teacher how a person became president.
Something about the way I asked made her think I was asking what I might do if I wanted to be president someday. That was not what I was asking. I am criminally shy and despise being the center of attention; a position as visible as the presidency would be my worst nightmare. But I also wasn’t really asking what it took to become president, either.
I was asking, without saying it, what it would take—was it even possible—for a woman to be president.
My teacher told me that I should study the presidents, learn their stories and see if I didn’t find common threads. Many of them, she informed me, had been lawyers. She made a joke, which I wouldn’t understand until years later, about how few of them were teachers, because it helps to be wealthy if you want to be a president.
I thanked her. And I went away, and I thought about her advice, and eventually I went back to the encyclopedias, reading about each president one by one, in the order I’d memorized their names.
I don’t recall how far I got before I gave up. The answer I was seeking wasn’t in their truncated biographies. I wanted to know, more fervently with each day, why they were all men. And my parents’ encyclopedias didn’t have the answer to that question.
I’d already learned, after asking directly why there were no female ministers in our denomination, and why there were no female baseball teams, and why there were no women here, and why girls weren’t allowed there, that asking such questions was much more likely to get me an exasperated look than a straight answer.
So I kept my question about female presidents to myself, until I finally got my answer, which came in bits and pieces, via the incessant drumbeat of sexism that forced its way into my own life, and care of the burgeoning awareness of a thing I would later learn was called feminism.
And once I understood why there had never been any female presidents (nor non-white presidents, nor queer presidents, nor…), I came back to my original question, which wasn’t masking a more basic question anymore: Just how does a person become president, if that person is a woman?
Shirley Chisholm ran for president two years before I was born. I’ve read about her remarkable run—but reading about it is not the same as living through it. Especially since women who blaze trails are often remembered much more favorably than they’re treated at the time they set fire to the path.
So it wasn’t until 2008, when Hillary Clinton first mounted a presidential bid—and one that was more viable, for a number of reasons having to do with privilege and progress, than Chisholm’s—that I got my first glimpse of just how a woman might become president. Of what it would really take.
Eight years later, I am getting a further education. My question is being answered, in simultaneously the most inspiring and disappointing ways.
What is takes is to be a woman who is extraordinary. A man with a C average and an important last name can bumble his way through life until he’s delivered to the Oval Office, accompanied by the sound of cheers and laughter. A woman must have a résumé that slays dragons.
What it takes is to be a woman with unparalleled moxie and almighty gumption. Who is willing and able to weather discreet and explosive attacks on her character, her personal life, her every word and gesture. Attacks so ceaseless and intense they would leave the average mortal cowering in the fetal position, rather than armed with a steely resolve to face more.
What it takes is to be a woman so special that there are scarcely enough superlatives to describe her: Smart, competent, kind, fierce, undeterrable, ethical, witty, wise… A woman who can meet the most unreasonable expectations, and yet still be vulnerable enough to be accessible. Human.
And what it takes, at this particular time, in this particular race for the presidency, for this particular woman named Hillary, is to be a woman who has spent her life grinding against the most sharpened edges of obstructionist misogyny, only to meet the final, pitiless indignity of facing an opponent who wields his vile chauvinism like a proud knight brandishing a battle-tested sword.
A man who wants to persistently and shamelessly use her womanhood against her, while refusing to let her acknowledge being a woman. A man whose central strategy is to try to derail a historic female presidency by trading on the centuries of gender bias that prevented a female presidency in the first place.
It takes a woman who understands what I daresay precious few men who have occupied the office she petitions to hold have understood as keenly as she does: That this is not a job for glory-seekers. It is a job in need of a person who fights, who risks, who prevails.
The job of the president is not a sinecure. It is not a trophy for vainglorious collectors. It is a serious job for a serious person who understands and respects that people’s lives depend on its being treated with gravity.
What it takes for a woman to be president is to have earned it, in a way most of her predecessors have not even been obliged to contemplate.
That is not fair, but it means we will get a president better than we deserve, given the way we have treated the woman who wants the position.
November is still a long way off. I am quite certain that there are yet more ignominies and obstacles to reveal themselves. We will not truly know what it takes for a woman to be president until we have elected one.
And then we will quickly forget what it took for her to get there, what it cost her to be first. She will be just another portrait, in a series of portraits of presidents. And she will be so much more.
(Photo: Hillary for America)