In the summer before 1992’s presidential election, the toy company Mattel, which had given Barbie a series of historically masculine professions — astronaut in 1965, surgeon in 1973 — decided to award its famous doll a new role: presidential candidate. Candidate Barbie wore a ball gown. The dress had a silver bustier and a star-spangled skirt, and its wearer’s platinum-blond hair fell in waves to her waist. It was an outfit entirely inappropriate for the campaign trail, but then again, it was Barbie.
That, incidentally, was in the middle of the “Year of the Woman,” in which an unprecedented five women were elected to the U.S. Senate. The country was trying to figure out what the first female American president should look like and symbolize. It still is. We still are.
We still are, even as we’ve gotten closer than ever before to that milestone, even as a woman is about to be nominated by a major political party for the first time and the cautious, heartful hope felt by some people is balanced by the outright hatred of others.
When I posed the question, school-assignment-like (What would it mean to you to have a female president?) to a thousand-odd friends on Facebook, the responses came back perfunctorily and practiced, as if never-ending election coverage had taught everyone how to talk in sound bites: the momentousness, the symbolism, the importance of not voting for any candidate, male or female, because of gender. Repeatedly, people said they’d like to elect the first female president if for no other reason than they were tired of endlessly talking about what it would mean. We’re over it, they said. Even before the moment has happened, we’re over it.
But are we?
Think of the Night of Terror in 1917, in which 33 women protesting outside the White House were arrested and beaten, dragged to jail and kept there for the crime of thinking that women should have the right to vote. One of them, after watching her cellmate’s head bashed against a metal bedframe, had a heart attack. Or think of Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, elected in 1916, when American women in many states couldn’t have cast a ballot for her. Or of Abigail Adams, in 1776, urging her husband to “remember the ladies,” aware with each quill stroke that a woman’s only hope at the time was the compassion of a man.
Think of all of the wretched, beautiful things like that, and the moment feels like something.
“I remember, in third or fourth grade, Michael Dukakis and George [H.W.] Bush were running, and my class had a mock election,” says Dana Brown, the executive director of Pennsylvania’s Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. “And it became really crystallized. The boys were the ones who wanted to participate. I was the only girl who decided I wanted to be president. It was me versus a kid named Mike.” (Mike won).
That’s one moment from Brown’s life. Here’s another, 30 years later:
“My 8-year-old niece recently asked my sister-in-law whether girls can be presidents,” Brown says. The mother said they could, of course, and then wondered aloud why her daughter was asking. The girl pointed to the pictures on the back of her history textbook; she’d noticed that all the presidents marching across the jacket were boys.
When people talk about gender equality in politics, they often point to this idea: It’s not the first female president who matters, but all the ones who come after her. Generations of girls need to see by example that women can be presidents so that they can aspire to be presidents themselves. A man, a white man at least, might not understand what it is to enter a room and feel his eyes scramble for purchase until they land on another person who looks like him. But all women know this feeling, the comfort of another treble voice, the possibility of a similar perspective, the prospect of a borrowed tampon. It matters if the room is the Oval Office.
For decades, women have been trying to get into this room: Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina. With each opportunity, the stakes are a little higher. If the first female president had been elected in 1796, on the heels of George Washington, she could have been just another candidate, with a bad temper or a wandering eye or whatever human frailty we’ve grown to accept in the leaders of the Free World.
But it’s taken 230 years for a woman to get within spitting distance of that textbook’s back cover, and now it seems the first one should be a perfect one. Unsullied, unblemished, strong and soft, personable and tough, camera-ready for inspirational documentaries. “The candidate where, we’ll know her when she comes,” says Elisabeth MacNamara, the president of the League of Women Voters, dryly and with a half-sigh. Eight years ago, the country thought it had found such a worthy history-maker in Barack Obama, she notes. “And for the last eight years, all I’ve been thinking is that I wouldn’t want to be the first anything.”
I can’t help but remember the 2003 movie “School of Rock,” a staple on late-night television. A substitute teacher played by Jack Black says, in admiration of a precocious student, “She’s going to be the first female president.” The girl was 10. Black’s character supported the idea of a female president, but he couldn’t imagine encountering a woman good enough for the next few decades.
And now here is Hillary Clinton, careworn and cackly, lugging around 40 years of public exposure along with a problematic husband and an email server that will never have an empty inbox. “She’s been the presumptive nominee for eight years,” says Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and president of WomenTrends, who was hired by Donald Trump’s campaign a few weeks after we talked on the phone. “People haven’t been hearing, ‘Do you want a woman president?’ They’ve been hearing ‘Do you want that woman president?’ I think someday we will have another woman whose life story is inspiring, who is more of a uniter than a divider, who doesn’t have her institutional and political advantages.”
On the one hand, the first woman to achieve the nomination of a major party was bound to be someone who was banged up, who had scrapped her way to the top in a manner that was sometimes “unlikable.” Without that life experience, how else would we know she was worthy? On the other hand, once a woman candidate gets that far, we’re bound to wish we could have a newer model. Someone without so much baggage, who didn’t wear so many awful pantsuits, who wore, instead, waist-length hair and a star-spangled ball gown. It would be so much easier if the first female president didn’t have to be human and instead could be a doll.
I can’t help but think, also, of the story of Moses in the Bible. After 40 years of leading his people through the desert to the Promised Land, Moses is informed by God that he won’t get to go there himself because, crotchety and exhausted, he’d rebelled against some orders and was deemed no longer worthy. Joshua became the leader instead. (Is Joshua, in this case, Elizabeth Warren? Nikki Haley?)
“To me, this is an incredibly large deal, but I don’t think a lot of people my age see it that way,” says Sivan Nizan, a 19-year-old university student from Pennsylvania who hopes to one day go into politics. “I knew a lot of women who were willing to vote for Senator Sanders, because they were sure that sometime in our lives there would be another woman candidate,” she says.
“I thought I would see it in my lifetime, but I didn’t think we’d see it so soon,” says Ebony West, who just graduated from college in North Carolina and sits on the National Council of the College Democrats. “I think it shows how far we’ve come as a nation. My first presidential vote was for a black man. My second will be for a woman.”
About that — about Barack Obama. When Obama, the candidate of tireless hope and change, won office in 2008, pundits made optimistic comments about the healing of America and how his election signified racial progress. Eight years later, racial tensions that people presumed had been scabbed over are instead open and raw. Breaking a glass ceiling doesn’t mean that gender problems in the country are solved; it just means there’s a bunch of glass on the floor.
Still, a milestone. “Holy cow, what a historic milestone,” says Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice women. Schriock considers herself part of the first generation who were told as children that they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up. “My mother was never told that,” she says.
For Schriock, the election of a female president would mean that the encouragement given to her as a child was actually realistic. “It would be the first time that was proven to be true.”
Maybe a female president wouldn’t mean anything in a practical sense. Men can nurture, after all. Men can think of their wives and sisters and friends when they govern.
But if that’s truly the case, then women never needed to be senators, either, or mayors or members of the school board. They never needed the vote, and they never needed to be beaten and arrested trying to get it. Remember the ladies, going back and back and back. Remember those exhausted, marching ladies.
Maybe a female president would symbolically mean everything.
Incidentally, the 1992 Candidate Barbie presumably lost her election, because it wasn’t until eight years later, in 2000, that Mattel released President Barbie. Progress had inched forward, slowly but surely, as it does in this country.
The new doll had hair cut in a sensible chin-length bob, a style that Clinton herself has sported from time to time. She wore a suit jacket and a knee-length skirt. The ensemble was a shiny, impractical satin, and the doll still came with a floor-length formal dress with a bow on the front.
Madam President would, of course, need an inaugural ball gown.
And after all, it was Barbie.