My 14-year-old-daughter forced me to watch the Miss America pageant Sunday night. Punishment. She was running her fingernails down the chalkboard of my feminist maternal soul. I send her to a top-notch, single-sex school so she can reap the girl power benefits of women's education, and still she gravitates toward princesses, pink, and pageants. I try not to judge.
Sunday night she grabbed the remote and with one eyebrow raised in challenge asked, "Is it okay if we watch Miss America, mom?"
I responded through clenched teeth, "Sure, kiddo."
Then we slipped through the looking glass to a place where patriotism is straightforward and star-spangled; where heels are high and stomachs flat; where women are genuinely talented but never threatening; and where we are invited to scrutinize impressive contestants on surface attributes to determine who is most fit to represent our ideal version of America.
Actually, not that dissimilar to an election.
As my teen blithely watched perky twenty-somethings strut for judges Mark Cuban and Gabby Douglas, Secretary Hillary Clinton was facing scrutiny of her literal fitness for the American presidency. Earlier that day, after becoming woozy during a September 11 memorial event, Clinton nearly collapsed. Initially the campaign claimed she'd overheated. But it was a pleasant, mild day in New York City, so the incident set off a full-fledged war of amateur medical conjecture until the Clinton campaign came clean and clarified she had been diagnosed with pneumonia a few days earlier. At best, Clinton's team committed an unforced error by failing to disclose the illness, closing ranks around her private, tough-it-out-approach, and allowing her to retire to a private apartment instead of a medical facility on Sunday afternoon. The campaign knows their candidate is dogged-however unfairly-by concerns about trustworthiness, and these choices around her illness handed ammunition to the opposition.
Then we slipped through the looking glass to a place where patriotism is straightforward and star-spangled; where heels are high and stomachs flat; where women are genuinely talented but never threatening.
But men have shown frailty while serving as president-why should it matter if HRC is physically fallible as well? George H.W. Bush fainted and vomited in Japan in 1992, and it did not render him unfit for the presidency. New evidence suggests Ronald Reagan may have been suffering from early Alzeheimers in his final years. FDR governed through war and depression from the confines of a wheelchair. Woodrow Wilson ceased acting as president after suffering a stroke, ceding decision-making authority to the First Lady, his wife Edith Wilson. President Harrison died within a month of taking office, likely having caught the flu at his own inauguration. We do not think of men as inherently unfit for the American presidency because of any of their individual illnesses.
It might be a Miss America problem.
Clinton speaks often of the glass ceiling, but the metaphor assumes structural barriers stand in the way of possibilities women can see for themselves. Structural barriers do stand in the way, but the metaphor doesn't account for the breathtaking imagination deficit affecting many American women. In their book, It Still Takes a Candidate, political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox find that even the most accomplished women are substantially less politically ambitious than their male counterparts. Even when women have resumes with twice as much experience, they are far less likely than men to deem themselves qualified to run for office.
When we see women's bodies we do not see bodies that are fit for office, we see bodies fit for bikinis, evening gowns, and sparkling crowns.
It is not just a self-image problem. From girlhood to adulthood, we rarely nurture political ambition in women. Teachers, mentors, and political parties are far less likely to recruit, fund, or even mention the idea of running for office to girls and women. When we see women's bodies we do not see bodies that are fit for office, we see bodies fit for bikinis, evening gowns, and sparkling crowns.
Miss America is about expectations and dreams. It is about what little girls see when they look in the mirror. I have dragged my own daughter on campaign buses since she was a toddler. She has met women who wield power in its many different manifestations from courtrooms to classrooms to television studios. And yet, even she is starry-eyed at the thought of a tiara, sash, and an arcane title.
I suspect Hillary makes the decision not to reveal her illness, not to rest, not to say she needs a break, because she knows how easy it is to label her as weak. We so rarely suggest that girls might be able to lead, we are not sure what women's leadership looks like. We haven't mentioned that women's leadership will include having the flu now and then.
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, we will still assume women look better in bikinis than boardrooms.
During the question and answer segment of the Miss America pageant, Miss Arkansas was asked: "Hillary Clinton, what do you think?" "If you're trying to be leader of the free world," Miss Arkansas answered, "everything you say and do matters, and all of your actions are held to a higher standard. And unfortunately, the media does love to sensationalize everything, and it's hard to tell what is truth and what is truly scandal … both of these candidates have done a great job in competing…"
The contestant did not mention the historic nature of Clinton's candidacy, nor her connection to Arkansas. She might easily have noted that no matter what one's political position, it is exciting that the country may be just weeks away from electing the first woman President of the United States. No matter what her political affiliation, this was a chance for a little "girl power" uplift: the would-be first woman president is a kind of "Miss Arkansas." I wondered if she even knew of Clinton's connection to the state. Instead, she advised Mrs. Clinton to hold herself to a higher standard in all matters of speech and action. Fifteen minutes later, Savvy Shields of Arkansas was crowned Miss America 2017.
Sunday night's pageant left a bitterness in the back of my throat.
I maintain my long-running and well-documented skepticism of Clinton's candidacy. It is a skepticism rooted in the particularity of her politics, not the generalities of her gender. I want to offer robust critiques of her campaign and, someday, of her administration while maintaining the ability of my daughters, my nieces, and students to emerge undeterred, even inspired, by her leadership. (It is the same tension I've held relative to President Obama.)
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, we will still assume women look better in bikinis than boardrooms, but this expansion of the imaginative possibilities for women's bodies and voices matters. Women will lead and falter. They will get sick and need to rest. They should tell the truth about it and run for president anyway. And we should tell our girls to run, and run, and run, and run. And not just in high heels and bikinis.
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