Contributors

Can a woman ever be president?

Across the political spectrum, Americans have expressed their distaste for Donald Trump's now infamous "locker room talk" on the NBC Access Hollywood bus in 2005. The discussion around sexist speech has revealed that most people do not condone this kind of behavior.

From Twitter streams about sexual harassment and email campaigns to push NBC to release allegedly even more crushing tapes, to private conversations between friends, Trump's bro-talk tapped into a zeitgeist of female fed-up-ness with sexism of all stripes.

But what has been less discussed is the way in which Hillary Clinton was forced to carry the burden of sexist speech into this week's debate, and how her appearance there revealed the fact that most people still cannot fathom the reality of a female President of the United States.

What was really under question during the second debate was not the sexual antics of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, but Hillary Clinton's legitimacy as a female President. (An office heretofore held by 44 men, only one of whom was not white.)

Throughout this campaign Hilary has put her body on the line to perform a redefinition of what we understand as the supposedly universal - i.e. open to men and women - category of the U.S. Presidency. This has led her to be chastised not only by the RNC, but also for her clothing, her hairstyle, her make-up, and even her tone (not feminine enough).

Her self-presentation, and fine-tuning of it to fit with assumptions about how a presidential woman should look and act, has revealed that we still hold deeply embedded assumptions about who can, and who cannot, be President.

The debate brought this issue to the fore because the presidential debate is a ritual linked to one of the political processes we hold most dear: the right to vote.  

 As anthropologists have taught us, rituals hold a latent power because they offer a reflexive understanding of the valued and often unquestioned aspects of our cultural understanding. Rituals around our political processes offer a way to scrutinize the hidden assumptions linked to citizenship.

 Before the 14th amendment granted "all persons born or naturalized in the U.S." the right to vote, for example, African Americans and other persons of non-European descent could not vote. But historic as that amendment remains, it left women of color out in the cold.

The masculine privilege of the vote was granted to women less than one-hundred years ago, in 1920. Women have been trying to make inroads ever since, but the road to full citizenship has been long, bumpy, and often circuitous.

As if trumpeting the inherent fragility of full female enfranchisement, Trump supporters tweeted #repealthe19th when recent polls revealed that Trump could win if the vote were limited to men.

A century after suffrage's success, a woman has reached the final summit approach, the almost achievement of an historic feminist goal. Rather than marking this occasion with its due magnitude, the setting for her second presidential debate was a public shaming. Hillary Clinton was linked to the scandal of sexual impropriety (not her own) because she is a woman. And women gain significance through their connections with significant others, usually men.

Her husband's accusers were seated above her in the proscenium of shame that hearkened back to the Salem witch trials. What this staging suggests is that women occupy spaces of power (like a presidential debate) only as imposters.

Despite her accurate reproduction of the ritual form, including the requisite pantsuit, she had to perform as if she were a legitimate candidate and not a legitimate candidate.  This is why slogans like "lock her up" and "hang her in the street" ring with a partial, eerie truth.

Women are vulnerable to the exclusions of male privilege because they are repeatedly on the verge of being exposed as unauthorized agents, charlatans making fraudulent claims to power.

All of us who watched the debate participated in this debacle, the laying bare of our not-so hidden assumptions about women and who can be President. Likewise, it is this questioning of Hillary's and any woman's legitimacy as President that will continue to haunt us beyond November?

Can rituals that are so deeply embedded in the preservation of patriarchal political power be productively appropriated for political change?  Can a woman ever really become President?

Kate Baldwin is Associate Professor of American Studies and Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on gender, race, and the history of public culture.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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