And talking about the kerfuffle between the two senators has become a roundabout way to express something so ugly that it’s almost difficult to look at directly: just how bad it could things get for a female candidate or for the first female president.
Yes, the 2016 election was a profoundly wounding experience for many women, not just the one who won the popular vote but lost the presidency to Donald Trump And it’s absolutely true that Hillary Clinton has inspired some truly deranged thinking over her three decades as a national figure. Her most inspired haters have accused her of involvement in a conspiracy to murder deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who died by suicide in 1993; of being a secret lesbian; of getting drunk and violent after losing the 2016 presidential election; and most recently of a conspiracy to murder convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to cover up her husband’s misdeeds.
Yet we know from the presidency of Barack Obama that as crazy as the things people say about candidates might be, the lies and fantasies they manufacture when someone gets real power are infinitely worse. And we know from the everyday experiences of much-less-prominent women that there are horrors a female presidential candidate has yet to experience, whether by virtue of her age or her specific circumstances.
Take, for example, the notice that Lux Alptraum issued in the New York Times last year when a fake, and relatively tame, nude photograph of newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) began circulating on the right: “The real naked selfies are coming.” Alptraum was stating the inevitable in service of the argument that we should “forcefully affirm that these photos — be they real or fake, consensually distributed or stolen and posted online without consent — don’t matter.”
That’s a lovely aspiration, but the reality is likely to be much uglier: vicious dissections of a presidential candidate’s naked body, or even deepfaked pornography intended to diminish and discredit female candidates and leaders.
Or to imagine another nightmare, what will happen when a female candidate or president talks openly about having been raped? We’ve seen what it’s like for ordinary women to come forward with allegations that powerful men sexually assaulted them when those men are up for promotion to some of the highest offices in the land: They are maligned, threatened and publicly vivisected.
Maybe it won’t matter if the female politician isn’t naming a specific attacker, or whether the person who raped her is a nobody. But she’ll perhaps be dissected and slimed in the exact same way: blamed for her own assault on the grounds that she was (and by implication is) a drunk or a slut; or accused of having a faulty memory in a way that is meant to disqualify her for the presidency.
And what happens if a female candidate or a female president is sexually assaulted on a rope line or at a public event? What would it be like to, in a slightly-less-horrible scenario, live through four or eight years of seeing constant rape threats and violent sexual fantasies directed at the commander in chief?
I want to believe that a woman can be elected president of the United States someday. But I am afraid that scenarios such as these could prove to be an insurmountable barrier, either by dissuading women from running or so poisoning voters that it becomes impossible for them to break that highest, hardest glass ceiling. I am afraid for the first female president, for her safety and her mental health. And I am afraid of what will follow her time in office, given the backlash to President Barack Obama’s tenure that is still unfolding.
The presidency, as we learned from 2008 to 2016, does not have unlimited powers to combat racism and bigotry. After the self-congratulation for dismantling a barrier comes the backlash and resentment. I don’t want to acknowledge what I know is true: that the election of the first female president would end up demonstrating that there is no office or force in the world that can defeat sexism. I’m scared that the inevitable consequence of electing one woman president might be that she would be the last for a very, very long time.