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Hillary lost in 2008 because we demanded perfection from a female candidate – hopefully we’re better than that now.
I confess that in 2008 I didn’t think we were a country that was ready for a woman president. Oh, how I wanted us to be! The 1970s feminist in me – the one who was schooled about uber-conservative Phyllis Schlafly’s political efforts to keep women in the home, the possibility of an Equal Rights Amendment, and the “women’s lib” expectations that I would, of course, see a woman president in my lifetime – assumed that in the twenty-first century things finally were changing. In 2008, how could it not be time for the United States finally to join that club?
While polls showed that America was statistically on board with the idea of a woman president eight years ago, the worry in my gut knew that women like Hillary often weren’t taken seriously in the world of old (and new) boys’ networks and that there were still too many gendered ideas about how women should be that held us all back, Hillary included, from what we could be. Sadly, my gut correctly predicted that the 2008 election cycle wasn’t going to be the Year of the Woman President in America; it took me longer to figure out why.
Hillary fell short because she wasn’t perfect.
But why did we project those expectations and visions of American womanhood onto Hillary, while also holding it against her for tenaciously clinging to her own dreams and making personal compromises many of us contend we would never have made in order to achieve them.
In 2008, our society still expected women to be like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way; without that, our country wasn’t ready to give Hillary, or any other woman, the keys to the White House.
We clearly still live in a time where women are criticized and judged more harshly than men based on this expectation of perfection. That obvious, but unspoken, need for female perfection plays out in so many parts of our lives. It’s what fuels the “mommy wars,” our debates about “leaning in” vs. institutional changes for increases in women’s professional advancement, and the sales of women’s magazines, books, and websites that call on us to continually examine the things that are wrong – or imperfect – with our lives. Too many women expect perfection of themselves and end up projecting that onto candidate Hillary. If we, as twenty-first century American women, judge ourselves harshly for failing at the perfection game, how can we not view Hillary through that same lens?
“Well … that hurts my feelings. … But I’ll try to go on,” she quipped. Hillary’s reaction was stereotypically feminine; she deflected in jest and embraced the laughs that came at her own expense. Few would probably even remember that moment today, but for an unnecessarily opportunistic jab from her main competition.
Looking somewhat smug, candidate Barack Obama, barely giving her a side-eye glance, made the now-infamously cutting, yet telling, remark that made so many women cringe: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
That four-word smack-down from the likable guy was the very definition of the double standard still being applied to women who dared to seek out political power. You’d better be perfectly likable and authentic (however each voter defines that authenticity) or suffer the electoral consequences. And if you’re an ambitious woman whose attempts at being powerful and likable don’t translate as authentic? Well, heaven help you.
As research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has found, “While male politicians can attract voters’ support by appearing strong and decisive, even when they are not perceived as being particularly likable, women still have to prove to the world they are both qualified for office and likable.”
What I need from Hillary is for her to be a leader who will listen to her constituents.
What I need from Hillary is for her to show my daughter that it is more than acceptable to be an ambitious woman with your own dreams and aspirations of leadership without being perceived as calculated and power hungry.
What I need from Hillary is for her to break not only the highest glass ceiling; I need her to break the perfection myth, as well.
Imperfection is what we’ve gotten in all our previous presidents. We’ve learned that Barack Obama also has his own sharp edges and sharp tongue that often make him not so likable, and he was elected twice with huge margins. Maybe it’s time to admit that likability and perceived perfection aren’t the best checklist items on which to judge a presidential candidate.