A Woman Can Be President, Right?

Feminists were devastated last November. But it’s not fated to be this way forever. A response to Susan Madrak and Kathleen Geier.

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Tagged Feminismpolitics

The exchange between Susan Madrak and Kathleen Geier, about whether a liberal woman can ever be elected President, gave me whiplash.

Though I’m usually pretty opinionated, especially on feminist issues, I couldn’t make up my mind on this one. As each writer refined and buttressed her position, I found myself veering back and forth: Madrak’s right, it’s hopeless for 2020. No, Geier’s right, we can do this!

Madrak’s argument was persuasive: She said sexism is too deeply entrenched in our culture to allow a female candidate—not a “theoretical female candidate” but “the actual one”—to win in 2020. Anti-woman attitudes operate on a “deep subconscious level.” Sexism is “sneaky, usually tolerated, and mostly unexamined.” Given today’s toxic climate, and based on how Hillary Clinton was treated by the Republicans and the media, attacks on a woman inevitably would be gendered and Manichean: Madonna/whore; saint/devil; naïve/calculating. The candidate would either be judged too soft or too strident; not competitive enough or unbecomingly ambitious. Her voice would be found shrill or insufficiently commanding, her looks and style too feminine (or sexy) to be taken seriously or too emasculating to be likeable. Her hips, hair, clothes and cleavage would be scrutinized more assiduously than the teeth of a thoroughbred.

Bummer! Madrak’s right, I thought. A woman can’t win in 2020.

Then I read Geier’s rebuttal and got completely turned around. Though patriarchy is universal, she said, more than 70 nations have had female heads of state, so why not us? She convinced me “that voter sexism does not hurt women candidates.” Rather, “the most powerful determinant of the vote” is party identification, and “it’s not like the [Democratic] Party is drowning in political talent.” In fact, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris happen to be “among the strongest contenders for the presidency.” If one of them surges to the front of the pack and the party leadership unequivocally supports her with campaign resources and troops, her chances should be as good as any man’s. Then again, as Senator Chuck Schumer pointed out, after the Sessions hearings, “There are times when men don’t like women who are smarter than them.”

I also agreed with Geier that “acts of gross public sexism tend to fuel a feminist backlash.” Witness the historic Women’s March of January 21. Not only was it a dramatic backlash against Donald Trump for having won despite his pussy-grabbing contempt for women, it was also an impressive outpouring of gratitude to Hillary for having represented us honorably and indefatigably and a statement of our commitment to press forward on a multitude of progressive issues despite the loss of the Democratic standard bearer.

Since the inauguration, feminist ire has been further stoked by a variety of rude Republican eruptions: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s censure of Senator Warren for “persisting” during hearings on the nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; several senators cutting off Senator Harris’s questioning of Sessions because she supposedly made him “nervous” and sounded “hysterical”; McConnell naming 13 GOP men and no women to the working group that wrote the Senate’s health plan. And don’t forget Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander scolding and silencing Washington Democrat Patty Murray for daring to request a hearing on the issue, not to mention the GOP’s stark indifference to women’s health needs as evidenced by the defunding of Planned Parenthood in both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Bottom line: If these men continue to diss us, surely millions more of us will get pissed and refresh our resolve to elect a woman next time. While I leaned toward Geier’s optimistic take, Madrak’s warning could not easily be dismissed; a premature effort to back a woman could backfire and hand us yet another loss.

So I kept shilly-shallying between them and wondered why, at this point in my feminist life, a question as crucial as the future of women’s political ascendancy should leave me so indecisive.

The answer came in the form of an old Jewish joke (are there any new Jewish jokes?), this one recast as dialogue in “Fiddler on the Roof”:

MORDCHA: Why should I break my head about the outside world? Let them break their own heads.
TEVYE: He’s right. As the Good Book says, “If you spit in the air, it lands in your face.”
PERCHIK: That’s nonsense. You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.
TEVYE: He’s right.
AVRAM: He’s right and he’s right? How can they both be right?
TEVYE: You know, you’re also right.

I think Madrak is right to be realistic about the challenges likely to face the next woman who runs for President in this toxic political climate. And I think Geier is right to hold the Democratic Party’s feet to the fire and insist it deliver financial and rhetorical support to whichever woman might rise, like cream, to the top of the list. What’s more, both writers offer insights that could help activists counteract society’s “unconscious sexism” before it gets turned into a misogynistic ad campaign or a “no” vote at the ballot box.

But context and insights don’t necessarily produce prophecy; they merely buttress intellectual guesswork. So despite buying both writers’ basic premises, I think I’m right to reject both sets of predictions. It’s not that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re woefully premature, and therefore neither woman is capable of substantiating her predictions. Put another way, too many vitally important “known unknowns”—a neologism invented by Donald Rumsfeld but useful nonetheless—are, of necessity, missing from their colloquy.

We all know that a lot can happen in the next three years to dramatically alter the country and, by extension, the public’s receptivity, or resistance, to a female candidate. War with North Korea, a nuclear showdown with Iran, a massive terrorist attack in a major U.S. city, a climate catastrophe, Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court, obstruction of justice charges against Trump, his complete mental meltdown, his impeachment, Pence at the helm . . . You get the picture. Scenarios unimaginable a few months ago seem less farfetched today, each of which could change the calculus of the writers’ presidential predictions.

A tsunami of crises could make Americans yearn for a leader who can restore order—a stronger, albeit saner, father figure, or a military man they can trust to conduct our wars and control the red button. By the same token, a confident liberal woman—regardless of her voice, thighs, or ambition—might be seen as an antidote to patriarchy run amok. Whether authentic or playing to stereotype, a female candidate could come across as a “natural” leader, peacemaker, diplomat, and nurturer-in-chief, someone who can calm the chaos and rescue millions from Trump’s madness and mayhem. The Utopian female savior would be as powerful yet empathic as Wonder Woman, as smart and kick-ass as Sheryl Sandberg, and as competent and hyper-organized as Supermom. In the real world, she will probably be a tough and talented female politician with good ethics and reasonable qualifications to run the country. I bet you already know women like that; the question is which one can get the party’s nod and weather the grueling ordeal of running for President.

A woman’s electability may hinge on the staying power of the new activism that has emerged. Will it build momentum, or flame out?

Here’s another known unknown: the resistance. A woman’s electability may hinge on the staying power of the new activism that has emerged since the election. But who can confidently predict which aspects of the anti-Trump resistance will be effective over the long haul? Will Black Lives Matter sustain its energy? Will the immigrant advocacy movement win hearts, minds, and lawsuits? Will the fiery pro-feminist backlash become pragmatic, productive, and expansive? Inspiring and uplifting as they are, none of these groups has yet to foment revolution. Will they build momentum and catch fire sufficient to fuel a mass uprising that seriously threatens existing structures of power? Or will they flame out like Occupy Wall Street?

Geier sees the Democratic leadership as part of the problem—and its potential solution. For me, this raises more questions than can be answered with a simple prediction. I want to know if the party can:

  • formulate a compelling liberal agenda whose policy goals are simultaneously pro-woman, pro-income equality, and anti-racist;
  • resolve its internal differences, narrow the widening rift between neoliberal Clintonians, Bernie’s Independents, and intersectional hard-liners like Linda Sarsour, and put a stop to further splintering;
  • bounce back from our defeats (Neil Gorsuch, the travel ban, maybe health care and Planned Parenthood) without succumbing to burn-out. Will frustrated Democrats fold their cards in despair or ante up for the next hand?

The future of feminism is another of the known unknowns whose denouement will affect the prospects of a female candidate. Given that millions of women voted against a highly qualified woman in 2016, it’s disingenuous to predict confidently what the female electorate will do in 2020. If Republicans eventually decimate health care, Medicaid, and reproductive rights, will white women voters return to the Democratic Party? If the Supremes abrogate Roe v. Wade entirely, will young women agonize or organize? Will all of us realize that reproductive freedom is a rights issue, a privacy issue, and a jobs issue or will we feel defensive, embarrassed or “selfish” about defending choice? Will a few local defeats flatten us into Daddy-knows-best passivity, or will they galvanize us into action? My crystal ball is full of gumballs right now, so I can’t say.

The anti-war movement, progenitor of the big tent, was inclusive of both fringe and mainstream groups and thus grew large enough and strong enough to get the United States out of Vietnam. As feminists, we should likewise welcome a diversity of voices into our tent rather than define some women out (Zionist feminists, for example). Solidarity is the power that can catapult a progressive (undoubtedly imperfect) woman from the big tent into the Oval Office. Yet the women’s movement, like the Democrats, is fragmented. Second, Third, and Fourth Wave feminists have different priorities. Women who self-identify as cultural, reformist, radical, or intersectional feminists—or as cis, lesbian, trans, or other—can be selectively outraged depending on whose ox is being gored by which bull.

The togetherness optics of the January 21 women’s marches have yet to translate into widespread alliances or joint action. Which groups will get mired in ideological disputes or competitive victimhood, and which will reach across boundaries of race, class, faith, and gender identity politics to change “the system” or elect a strong woman candidate remains an open question.

Madrak is not opposed to a woman running for President ever, just not in 2020. “It will take much longer than four years to undo the sexist programming that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss,” she said. “Unless something changes radically, the next cycle is not the time for a female consolation nominee, because we are likely to lose.”

I’ve been wondering what that “something” might be and how radically it could alter laws and attitudes. To win the vote, suffragists campaigned for seven decades, from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, against innumerable barriers and incessant pushback. Mindful of that history, I know enough to not underestimate the stranglehold of patriarchal institutions and death grip of male hegemony.

Which is not to say that our progress has been stagnant: In 1964, Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, outlawing sex discrimination on the job, and eventually banning pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment explicitly. Women all over the country formed consciousness-raising groups, varieties of sexism were named and catalogued, organizations formed, bills passed, books written, oppressors sued, judgments won. As the movement gathered steam, advocates, political support, literature, and legal victories, “Women’s Liberation” became the rallying cry for my generation. But after decades of forward motion, suddenly the clock is moving backwards and the most we can say now is, “You’ve come a long way, maybe.”

Because nothing is predictable anymore, least of all Donald Trump, none of us can predict how much more backsliding lies ahead or what forms of resistance will yield concrete results. All we know for sure is the urgency of the struggle. Activists have to blitz our legislators with phone calls, lobby them, sit-in outside their offices, march, speak up at town meetings, and sign petitions that are not pie-in-the-sky but contain specific demands and are directed to those who actually have the power to solve the problem. We also know we must support and fundraise for pro-choice Democratic women candidates at every level of government, and even run for office ourselves, if we ever hope to change the face of power and prepare the national psyche to accept a woman at the top.

Some women have already stepped up to the plate and enrolled in candidate training programs (i.e. Rutger’s Center for American Women and Politics). Others have been mobilized by, which incubates and educates potential women leaders. Many activists routinely log on to political websites like, (Michael Moore’s initiative),, and (whose three year plan for all 50 states aims to turn red states blue).

As the unknowns become known and the right’s extremist agenda further impacts our daily lives, the fate of democracy and the future of women’s equality will be up for grabs. We can only hope that the forces of resistance live long and prosper and that, when a viable female presidential candidate makes herself known, the perfect won’t be the enemy of the good and the majority of Americans, sickened by Trump, will go to the mat for her.

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Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine, a writer, activist, and the author of eleven books. She is currently working on a memoir entitled Shonda.

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