SOME women, even progressive ones, are surely celebrating Hillary Clinton’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Those of us who think 43 male presidents in a row is quite enough, thank you, still sometimes question whether a woman whose greatest political move was her marriage deserves to be the first woman in the White House.
But while there are plenty of reasons not to vote for Mrs. Clinton (as an antiwar libertarian, I could happily list them for you at length), her marital journey to power is not one of them. The uncomfortable truth is that political nepotism has often served feminism’s cause well.
In 1924, Miriam A. Ferguson, a Texas Democrat known as Ma, became the first woman elected to a full term as a governor. Her husband, James Edward Ferguson, had been elected, impeached and removed from the same office. Mrs. Ferguson ran on a platform of “two governors for the price of one” — a package that included a convicted extortionist and an untested woman.
Like it or not, the road to female advancement often begins at the altar. History books are thick with examples of women who broke political barriers because their family connections afforded them the opportunity.
If you’ve ever wondered why India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines seem readier to elect women than does the United States, here’s your answer: Societies that value a candidate’s family affiliation, and therefore have a history of nepotistic succession, are often open to female leadership so long as it bears the right brand. Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, among many others, slashed through gender barriers on the strength of their family names.
In the United States, where a poll last year found that 14 percent of people still admit they would not vote for a woman, nepotistic advancement for women in politics was most common early in the 20th century. As Jo Freeman, the feminist political scientist, has pointed out, six of the first 14 women elected to Congress were widows of incumbents. Three more were the daughters of politicians.
The first three women to serve full Senate terms all succeeded their husbands. Only with the 1978 election of Nancy Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, did a woman finally achieve a full Senate term without first following her husband into office. (And Ms. Kassebaum was the daughter of Alf Landon, the former Kansas governor.)
To some voters, Hillary Clinton’s husband provides reassurance that the “calculating” senator from New York won’t degenerate into a feminine hysteric if she is elected to the White House. Yet Mrs. Clinton, the first woman who is a serious contender for the presidential nomination of one of the nation’s two major political parties, still has to work overtime to prove herself non-threatening. She clings to the political center like a life raft and rarely ventures from the shallow waters of establishment predictability.
Social psychologists have found that women in leadership roles are typically seen as either warm, likable and incompetent, or cold, distant and competent. To be a strong, competent woman is to be something culturally unattractive, which probably says something about why few American women even aspire to political office. Worldwide, even popular female politicians — Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Angela Merkel — are slapped with the moniker “iron lady.”
Granted, women who rely on their last names to ascend to power are not especially likely to pursue explicitly feminist policies. They may even be less likely to do so, in order to seem worthy of office.
But their chief function to the cause is outside of policy. By their very existence, these women attack the norms and assumptions that bar other women from ascending to power on their own.
Women like Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, who lost her husband in a plane crash in 1972 and then assumed his vacant office in the House of Representatives, showed us they could lead as well as their husbands did — even if they never would have been given the chance otherwise.
The best way to convince voters that women leaders are fully human — likable and competent at times, unlikable and incompetent at others — is to fill the world with more of them.
No mother wants to tell her daughter that she can aspire to the presidency only if she snags the most gifted politician of her generation. But Hillary Clinton’s rise to power, unsettling as it is, follows a time-tested pattern for the breaking of gender barriers.
The great feminist promise of a Hillary Clinton presidency amounts to this: If we elect a political wife now, perhaps we won’t have to later.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason magazine.