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A Supreme Moment of Ambiguity

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By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, October 13, 2005

"Mom, how many women presidents have there been?" My older daughter, then 5 and maneuvering to delay bedtime, popped this question during the 2000 campaign. I loved the innocent confidence of its premise; I remember, in the moment before I answered, the stab of regret that I was about to erode her post-feminist certitude.

I've been thinking about that conversation recently, first with the debut of the TV series "Commander in Chief," featuring Geena Davis as the first female president, and again with the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. Together the two events capture the uncertain position of women in public life today. This is an odd, transitional moment in which it is conceivable that a woman could become president despite her gender and evident that a woman was selected for the high court largely because of it. Neither situation is especially satisfying.

I found it off-putting, offensive almost, when I first heard about "Commander in Chief." It seemed likely to be a bit too Mr. Ed-ish -- a woman president! A talking horse! There are, indeed, some clunky can-you-believe-this-role-reversal moments, particularly involving the (giggle, giggle) First Man. Ewww, a pink office .

It's worth noting, too, that Davis is the Accidental President, thrust into the role when the real president dies. Maybe even in liberal Hollywood it's too much to envision a woman actually being elected to the job. And perhaps Davis, even with Those Lips, might be a little more believable as commander in chief if we hadn't last seen her talking to a mouse. Stuart Little, female president -- whatever.

But the show is growing on me, especially the matter-of-fact way Davis dispenses with the immutable twin facts that she is a woman and a mother. She assumes there will be discomfort about her gender but doesn't dwell on it; she treats her motherhood as a role to be braided into the rest of her newly complex life, not something to hide or apologize over.

After a briefing on her color-coded schedule, the president instructs her chief of staff to add a new hue -- this one blocking out time for family dinner. What working mother doesn't identify with the scene in which the new president, rewriting her speech in the limousine on her way to address her first joint session of Congress, has to cope with questions from her young daughter ("Mommy, did you get timeouts when you were little?") and a juice-box spill on the presidential blouse?

If "Commander in Chief" points the way, however faintly, toward the moment when a woman in the presidency will be the routine matter my daughter imagined it to be, the Miers nomination is, I think, an unfortunate step in the opposite direction. The idea of a female Supreme Court justice, unlike the idea of a female president, is no longer a novelty. No one, left or right, was balking at the notion of picking a woman for this vacancy; indeed, I think most people would have preferred it.

That progress, though, is undermined by the selection of a woman who -- at least on the face of it -- is far less qualified than the male nominee who preceded her, not to mention the two other women who have served on the high court. It reinforces the suspicion that there is an inevitable trade-off between quality and diversity -- a particularly false choice given the integration of women into the top ranks of the legal profession. The Miers nomination feels less like the natural result of women's progress and more like bean-counting tokenism: Okay, we have our two-gal quota, taken care of that problem.

To express discomfort about Miers is not sexism, as first lady Laura Bush and nomination wrangler Ed Gillespie have suggested -- though some of the remarks about Miers have more than a tinge of sexism to them. (Note to Miers opponents: Drop the "she's a nice lady" bit.) It's a recognition that while gender counts, it's not enough, and Miers's other qualifications for the post are far less than optimal. Harry Miers -- even White House counsel Harry Miers -- would never have gotten the job. There's a difference between a thumb on the scale and an entire fist.

Feminist mother of budding feminists, I broke the family rule against television on school nights to let my daughters watch the first episode of "Commander in Chief." This time around it was the younger one with the discomfiting question. Maybe it's the fact that in this case the question was coming from the chastened perspective of an 8-year-old, but her phrasing was less confident, her outlook less grand than her sister's had been: "So have there been any women vice presidents?" Having only Geraldine Ferraro to offer up felt awfully lame, 21 years and a whopping electoral defeat later.

And so, it's good that we can imagine a woman as president -- even if just for an hour every week. It's good that we've reached the point where having only one woman on the Supreme Court seems strange and inadequate. It will be even better -- whenever that day comes -- when gender has become neither absolute roadblock nor chief qualification.

marcusr@washpost.com


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