As we rush to the polls today, and afterward to whatever liquid consolation we have chosen to help us through the evening, each of us is anticipating the morning after with a sense of anxiety that has been months in the making. My speculation about the day after the “apocalypse,” however, is shadowed by a feeling of déjà vu. I cannot help but think of another Election Day nine months ago, when another nation was poised for its first female president.
When my native country, Taiwan, elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, many hailed her inauguration as a landmark of liberal progress. In the months leading up to her victory, the same sentiment reverberated amongst her supporters: It was time for a woman to lead the country in the right direction. On Tsai they hung their hopes not only for the future of Taiwanese democracy, but also for broader gender equality.
Disappointingly, only five months after Tsai took office, her approval ratings have nearly halved. Possible causes include her encouragement of student invasions of parliament and the damage her pro-independence policies have caused the Taiwanese economy by alienating China. A disillusioned Taiwanese public voices its frustration with Tsai’s perceived inability to listen to their concerns and regrets ever electing her.
Not far off, another Asian female head of state (whom Tsai cites as a political inspiration) is suffering even worse backlash from the public. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of South Koreans protested in the capital, demanding the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female president. Investigations had revealed that Park illegally granted a shocking amount of political leverage to a female confidante — the daughter of a corrupt sect leader who served a Rasputin-like role to Park.
These two examples, among others, exhibit what I dub the “Dido effect,” in reference to the Carthaginian queen in Virgil’s Latin epic, the “Aeneid.” “Dux femina facti” is how Virgil introduces us to Dido, “A woman who was leader of the deed.” Dido is presented as an intimidatingly competent leader, all the more outstanding for her gender, who successfully manages an efficient and sophisticated state. But Virgil ultimately undermines this vision of capable female leadership by depicting Dido as falling into depression after her failed affair with Aeneas. As a result, she neglects her city and allows it to fall into ruin, causing her people to turn against her. When an egregious, emotional woman is “dux facti,” the state fails, Virgil warns his Roman audience.
Today, we are faced with two questions: What happens when “dux femina facti”? And what happens when this “feminist experiment” fails?
As various female presidencies across the world implode, I despair for national and global attitudes toward female governance. Out of a sense of betrayal, popular sentiment has turned against female leaders, whose actions were already dogged with misogynistic criticisms. Chinese officials have made disparaging comments about Tsai’s “emotional” and “extreme” political approach due to her unmarried status. These attacks echo misogynistic jibes at Clinton for being “emotional,” “aggressive” and “nasty.”
What compounds this dilemma is that these women, conscious of the significance of their campaigns, were compelled to make female leadership a centerpiece of their platform. They deliberately projected their presidencies as groundbreaking feminist models and accepted the public’s high expectations for their tenures. But when scandals and failures occurred during their presidencies, there were damning repercussions for the already tenuous vision of normalized female leadership.
On a scale of such political magnitude and visibility, it is incredibly difficult to debunk unfair sexist criticisms faster than they capture public sentiment and confirm preexisting stereotypes of women as unfit for politics. The reality is that this year is not shaping up to be my Game-of-Thrones-esque fantasy of empowered women dominating the world. It terrifies me that these incidents could contribute to a misguided global consensus that women do not belong in government.
Barring phenomenal intervention by a displeased god, the United States of America will hail its first female president tonight. And in light of the highly fraught state of female leadership in the world, we urgently need Hillary Clinton to demonstrate competence in the Oval Office and prove where others have stumbled that the “woman leader” is more than a cautionary political myth. No matter the overwhelming odds, no matter how uncharitable the criticisms against her, she must share in the burden of validating the possibility of female leadership. And she must bring to bear all the experience, compassion and wisdom she has assured us of throughout this election.
Perhaps, then, it will be pleasing to look back one day upon the “factum” of Hillary Clinton.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .