America is not ready for a female president. I have typed and deleted that sentence five times. It appalls me. It goes against everything I grew up hearing, everything I tell my daughter. But I have come to believe it. I have been convinced not just by nasty bloggers or by Limbaugh the Comic Insult Dog. It's not because of the far more disturbing bias I have seen in otherwise respectable political commentators, as they gleefully declared Hillary Clinton's campaign dead and deader. Or even because 34 percent of adults recently confirmed in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll that they do not think America is ready for a woman president (compared with 26 percent who said we weren't ready for a black president).
Nope, I expected all that. It's the people I know and respect who have convinced me. It's the people who have no qualms about making sexist comments and jokes about Hillary—Those cankles! Her pantsuits! Iron my shirt!—who've convinced me that, in America, we still do not like our women powerful. It's the people who have told me confidentially that "someone they know" just can't bring himself/herself to vote for a woman. It's the office jokes about Hillary's scary, ball-busting, quick-cross-your-legs nature that have scared me. Can you imagine if I said that I find ambitious black men scary? What if I joked in a meeting that the Obamas seem "uppity"? Call HR!
Since the campaign began, it seems that if you lift up a rock, you find a mommy issue. The number of people who say Hillary reminds them of their mother/stepmother/mother-in-law has shocked me. They mean "mother" in the nagging, scolding, mom-jean-wearing sense, and not in a reassuring, brave and noble "founding father" sort of way. Because since our mothers were often the sole authority figures in our childhoods, powerful women can bring back uncomfortable, if not emasculating, memories. As one 54-year-old man complained to Newsweek.com during our coverage of last Tuesday's primary race: "Watching Senator Clinton the past couple of weeks reminds me of haranguing and scolding by my mother."
All this ambient sexism is insulting and disrespectful to Clinton—and to me because, hello, I'm a woman. Because you wouldn't make similar comments about blacks or Jews or disabled people. Maybe it's also because I have that uneasy feeling that the C word has echoed behind me in the corridors of corporate America. Or because I sometimes wear pantsuits and cry in the office. Men may feel comfortable cracking wise on Hillary in front of me partly because I often crack wise and partly because it's hard to view affluent white women like me as victims of society.
But maybe, just maybe, it's also because Gloria Steinem is right—cue eye-rolling at the mention of an old-school feminist—that gender remains the most restricting force in American life. That makes me worry about my daughter's future. Steinem argues that among the reasons that sexism is not taken as seriously as racism is that sexism is still confused with nature, as racism used to be. It's just the natural order of things. At our core, many Americans just do not feel comfortable with the idea of a woman—Democrat or Republican—answering the phone at 3 a.m.
When I have bounced this argument off men I know, they have been quick to assure me that they are not at all uncomfortable with the idea of a woman as president. It's just Hillary they find unacceptable. Her secretive behavior and her utter mishandling of health care during her husband's administration. Fair enough, I have said. So what other woman could they imagine as president? Condi Rice? Well, she's not really a politician. Nancy Pelosi? Hmm, not really. Angelina Jolie? Now you're talking!
Perhaps that's because, apart from Hillary, there are few women of national political stature in this country. Could it be because there are still only eight female governors and because only 16 percent of all representatives and senators are women? Or maybe it's a coincidence. So forgive me if I'm feeling a little shrewish myself these days. From now on, if you want to call the first woman to win a Democratic primary a bitch in front of me, you'd better be Tina Fey.