In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the United States. At least, she tried to run. A newspaper-publishing, stock-exchanging and pot-stirring advocate for sexual liberty and women’s suffrage, Woodhull nabbed the nomination of the historically dubious Equal Rights Party. Her bid was questionable, and, ever the rabble-rouser, Woodhull spent Election Day behind bars.
Alas, incumbent Ulysses Simpson Grant — that great lover of whiskey and war — snatched the election from Democrat Horace Greeley, and poor Victoria wasn’t even an afterthought. Her impact on American political culture was ultimately as small as the corseted waists she so strongly opposed.
Today, armchair historians interested in Woodhull as a historical footnote tend to study the legitimacy of her presidential bid from constitutional and practical angles. But back in 1872, the objection to her campaign was clear: She was a woman. She was unable to vote, unable to campaign, and therefore unable to exercise her rights as an American citizen. But we’ve made some progress since then.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton withdrew from the Democratic primary race in 2008, she thanked her supporters, addressing the symbolic and cultural importance of the contest. “Children today will grow up taking for granted that an African-American or a woman can become president of the United States,” Clinton said.
“The glass ceiling,” she told supporters, has “about 18 million cracks.”
Sexism was not the reason Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic primary, but her candidacy did much to reveal the sexist undertones that still pervade American society. The odd fixation on Clinton’s cackling laugh and questionably flattering pantsuits? Gendered.
It’s not always easy to distinguish genderless attacks — say, a particularly sharp criticism of foreign policy — from real sexist remarks. No woman wants to play the girl who cried wolf. So let me be clear: I don’t think every attack on a female politician constitutes sexism. A good handful of popular tropes, however, sure do. One word: cankles.
All presidential candidates endure attacks unrelated to their platforms — see John McCain’s houses and John Edwards’ haircut. But being a woman presents particular problems. Attacks on apparel, appearance and allure become more legitimate. Interview questions become less Politico and more People. And every woman must tread the tenuous line between being a pushover and being a bitch.
These subtle manifestations of sexism affect all women, not just Democrats or liberals. Sarah Palin faced sexism, too — media outlets focused on her perceived hotness, and her head found itself Photoshopped onto a star-spangled bikini, her computerized limbs clutching a gun almost as big as her Photoshopped breasts.
This time around, Minnesota Tea Partier Michele Bachmann got the short end of the proverbial stick. She was “Crazy Eyes” Bachmann, her appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” choreographed to a song called “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” There were accusations of condescension during the debates, and then, of course, that infamous Newsweek cover.
I’m not sure if all the aforementioned examples constitute sexism — intent, of course, matters, and the line between well-meaning satire and malevolent snark is thin. But let me tell you what is sexism, explicitly, clearly and undeniably: last year, a Santorum staffer wrote an email questioning Bachmann’s qualification for the presidency. The biggest stumbling block? Her gender.
“Is it God’s highest desire, that is, His biblically expressed will,” wrote Iowa staffer Jamie Johnson in a private email that surfaced a week or so ago, “to have a woman rule the institutions of the Family, the Church, and the State?”
Unfortunately, temporal concerns — by which I mean yesterday’s Wikipedia blackout — prevent me from asking the Internet how Deborah and Miriam would have felt about Johnson’s interpretation of the Bible. But lest you think sexism is no longer a problem — that it is an excuse for weakness, an unwarranted whine or a relic of 1872 — look no further. Here it is: a man who believes two X chromosomes preclude a woman — any woman — from leading. At Yale, it’s easy to forget that beliefs like these still exist.
It’s gotten better; it isn’t 1872 anymore. Today, the biggest obstacle to Victoria Woodhull’s run would be her radical ideals and complete lack of political organization — not her gender. But don’t take progress for granted. After all, the glass ceiling may be cracked, battered, bruised and beaten. But as long as people like Jamie Johnson believe that effective leadership depends on gender, the glass ceiling will still exist. We just won’t ever look up to see it.
Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.