I had a friend growing up who planned to be the first woman president when she grew up. Not just the president, but the very first woman president. The first time I remember her saying this was in kindergarten, and anytime the question came up after that (as it often does when you're a kid), her answer was always the same.
In fifth grade, we were asked to make a drawing of what we would be when we grew up. I turned to her in the chair behind me and asked what she drew. "I'm the president," she said. "There's my law degree. I'm going to be a lawyer first, then the first woman president." I took the construction paper in my hands and looked at a crisp drawing in shades of blue and gray and black. She was wearing a dark blue suit, her hair was stick straight and in a ponytail, the scales of justice were nearby, and some approximation of the presidential seal was in the upper corner. This was the first time I really thought about someone like me being president.
Bill Clinton was the president then. At 11, I only had a peripheral understanding of what being the president meant. I understood it to mean he was basically the boss—the leader of everybody. We grew up in a time where girls were constantly reassured we could be just as good as the boys, so I knew theoretically a woman could be the boss. But my peer seeing herself in that position captivated me in a way that the chorus of "you can be anything you want to be" never could. She wasn't going to be just as good as the boys, she was going to be in charge of them.
As we got older, we cultivated different interests and grew apart. The last meaningful interaction I remember having with her was when we went to a debate competition together. We talked in our shared hotel room about the future. I couldn't tell you now what I said about my post-high school plans or what I wanted to be, that day it might have been a social worker or painter. But she had the same answer as always.
That time, a few things struck me. First, we'd have to wait a few decades for a woman president if it was going to be her. This seemed unacceptable at the time. Then for the first time I wondered, what would her presidency look like? On the issues I had started to develop a keen interest in, she was decidedly on the wrong side. On reproductive rights, I found myself the odd girl out among my Catholic school peers. On social justice, our interest was shared but our purpose differed significantly. On same sex marriage, my peers had begun mimicking the hateful rhetoric of our parents and teachers. I felt isolated and sometimes even hated at school. So I found myself thinking for the first time that maybe she shouldn't be the first woman president, maybe it should be someone like me. I felt a pang of guilt, as if I had betrayed the idea that women can do anything men can.
There is something romantic about the idea of a woman becoming the President of the United States. After losing the Democratic Primary in 2008, Hillary Clinton told her supporters, "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it." She tried, and she got further than any woman before her had. Back then, at 22, I wasn't as enthralled about the idea of a woman president as I had been as a child, but my resentment for that glass ceiling was fiery hot. I wanted badly to see tangible proof of the equality I was told we were ready for.
But by the next time Hillary ran, my passion for the idea of her presidency had evaporated. I didn't want to say it wouldn't matter if a woman became president, but I knew I didn't want it to be Hillary. I remember wondering, what would it really mean to have a woman president? What would differentiate Hillary Clinton's presidency from Barack Obama's? Looking back, on a long enough timeline, we can assume the difference would likely be imperceptible. My disappointment with Barack Obama's presidency and with the democratic establishment in general had reached a critical level. I thought maybe that disappointment outweighed my desire to see someone break that glass ceiling. It was hard to reconcile how I felt, but it boiled down to this: a woman president sounded good in theory, but would just any woman do?
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Editorial Board broke from tradition and endorsed two women for President. At first glance, it appears they are tacitly endorsing simply the idea of a woman president, without regard to a candidate's position on the issues. You don't have to be a supporter of either Warren or Klobuchar to know that there are stark differences between the two, when you're looking beyond gender. This endorsement can be seen as an example of the larger narrative around the idea of a woman president. Maybe what they are telling us now is the same thing they told us about Hillary in 2016: any woman will do. But a closer reading of the text of the endorsement reveals a different purpose, or a lack of purpose. It is a mess of misrepresented claims and frequent self-rebuttals.
The Times reader is presented with the idea that there are three distinct visions for the future. On the Republican side, they present the decidedly bleak future another Trump term would bring. On the Democratic side, they we have the radical (Elizabeth Warren) and realist (Amy Klobuchar) approaches. Which of these two models would be most compelling to the American people, and therefore offer a better chance of victory against Trump?
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Peppered in between the contradictory paragraphs that supposedly answer this question, you'll find jabs at who many would consider the only "radical" candidate running, Bernie Sanders.
On the eve of the Iowa caucus, I found myself thinking about that endorsement again, and more broadly that idea of someone like me sitting in the oval office. If it's going to be someone like me, it can't be Elizabeth Warren. It absolutely cannot be Amy Klobuchar.
Wanting a woman to be president for the sake of it is a child-like and shallow way to think about representation. You might say a woman represents me. What if we qualify that a little bit further? Does a rich white liberal woman who was a conservative until she was 47 years old represent me? What about one who potentially helped wrongly convict and sentence a black teenager to life in prison?
We've been sold the idea that as women we have a responsibility to tackle that glass ceiling together, to support each other unconditionally. But the truth is that the women in this race, like most politicians, are agents of the existing power structures. Bourgeois publications like the New York Times want this to be a contest between two people who aren't offering up much more than thinly veiled compromise with the people who are happy to keep us poor and miserable, the ones who are destroying the planet and jailing children. At best they don't believe better things are possible, and at worst they actively want things to stay the way they are because the status quo benefits them. These people are the enemies of progress. They are not like me.
I don't need someone who reflects my gender to be represented. I need someone who reflects my values. Someone empathetic and kind, but who will fight fiercely for what they believe. Someone who will say, "No, we cannot and we will not compromise on basic human rights." Someone who knows that the average person cannot continue to abide by a system where wealth and power are bestowed upon a select few, and the rest of us are left out in the cold by the millions.
I'm a woman, but I'm more than a woman. I'm someone who's seen firsthand the effects of our current immigration, healthcare, and justice systems. I'm someone who is tired of capitalism, who can't stand to continue seeing profit come before human life. I'm a child of immigrants who feels a deep sense of despair about what's happening at our border. I'm someone who has been lucky in a lot of ways, and who doesn't think a basic standard of living should be based on luck. I don't believe there are good reasons why some people should just be homeless or sick or in massive amounts of debt. Like many Americans, I'm saying enough is enough, and only one candidate in this primary is saying he hears that.
We can't be placated by a nice smiling lady who supposedly represents leaps and bounds in progress for women, while touting her ability to compromise with the people who don't care if we live or die. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who represents a true understanding and a willingness to heal the anger, despair, and resentment many feel toward a government which seemingly doesn't care if we are hungry or sick or dying. He knows we are tired of endless wars. He knows we can't stand to see people rationing insulin in the wealthiest country in the world. He knows we want billionaires to pay their fair share.
Ironically, the candidate who most represents me is the only one saying it's not about him. We don't have to try to find a way to be excited about some illusion of personalized representation. We don't have to hope for the best and settle for whoever we can get. We can get excited about this movement and the tangible changes he plans to make in our lives from day one as president. We can feel empowered by the fact that it really is about us—about our desire to see student debt cancelled or big pharma brought down or children reunited with their parents. When Bernie says it's not about him, I see my values and fears and hopes represented in a way I never have before. It makes me realize that I don't need to see someone like me in the oval office, because it's not about me. What we need, and what we deserve, is someone like us.