Kathleen Dalton: What Would Change If a Woman Were President?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ms. Dalton is the author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (Vintage).]

I'm glad you asked me about what I think would be different if a woman, in this case Hillary Clinton, were elected president. I do have an opinion--surprise, surprise!!!

When Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady some people thought she should run for president after her husband left office. She was conversant with the issues, smart, articulate, a good public speaker, widely respected, and she had the skills to work with Congress to get bills passed. She was also considerably healthier than her husband. The major problem with that idea was the undercurrent of prejudice against women that existed at the time. Journalists like Westbrook Pegler attacked everything she did, accused her of having communist sympathies, and called her"La Boca Grande." Many people were uncomfortable with a First Lady like Eleanor Roosevelt speaking out on political issues, but by the time she died she had done immense good (she changed world history by getting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed and she remained a major voice in the Democratic Party until her death. ER was one of the most beloved figures in American history and if Americans had been able to set aside their prejudices they could have had a fine woman president in Eleanor Roosevelt. They weren't ready.

Is America ready now? The Westbrook Pegler of our time is, of course, Robert Novak (why is a man who outed a CIA agent NOT in jail?). Novak was attacking Hillary from the first weeks of the first Clinton term of office, accusing her of being behind the gays in the military controversy and everything that went wrong with the Clinton administration. He is not the only Hillary-hater running loose on the political trail. Hate Hillary sites exist on the web and right-wing millionaires like Richard Scaife have funded think tanks to spread lies about the Clintons. The Clinton haters are numerous and well-placed in the media, and eager to blame her for every mistake her husband made. This contingent of haters would provide a downside to her presidency which is not really her fault. She would have to figure out how to make fun of them or neutralize them in some new way. The familiar game plan of the Clinton camp, locked-in-the-death-grip-of-political-combat-with-the-right tactic, would need to be replaced by a more positive plan. I think she knows that.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would be different from an Obama or McCain presidency because the sexism of the right wing and even the mainstream media would be aimed against her. Have you seen Chris Matthews fulminate against her? It's disgusting--and women are circulating the clip on You Tube with shock and anger. The Rush Limbaughs of hate-talk radio call women like me who believe in equal rights for my students like you"femi-nazis" though his hyperbole is ridiculous and he is pitiful.

Hillary haters are a sick bunch, and there are a lot of them. The political landscape of the nineties was a creation of a religious right and extremists like Newt Gingrich, not the Clintons. I am sorry to say that many of my former students who are avid OBAMANIACS have been inclined to exaggerate Hillary's short-comings in the heat of the campaign. I say"Fine" disagree with her moments of centrism, criticize her husband and his big ego all you want, but try, please try, to stick to the issues and the qualifications. Though I do not know who I will support (I certainly won't support a defense hawk like McCain) I hope that the Democrats will come together behind whoever gets the nomination. Leave the hating Hillary to the media and the right wing. A President Obama would get some right wing and white supremacist hate and he is ready to deal with that. A President Hillary Clinton would have to be braced for a lot more overt nastiness because sexism still has a power to make people crazy. She's"been there-done that" already. She's ready for prime time, prepared to rise above the fray and lead.

A Hillary presidency would happen because the gender gap has come of age. Women have been voting less hawkishly than men since 1980 and men are more susceptible to the chest-pounding defend-our-country rhetoric we will no doubt hear from McCain. 2008 will be the year that men and women see the candidates from different vantage points. If a McCain-Obama contest emerges will gender-susceptible men see the choice as Tough Guy candidate versus Sensitive New Age Guy? If so expect McCain to be sending more of your sons and daughters to Iraq. he says he surge wasn't big enough. Watch those men who like Rambo movies and see how they vote!

Pundits need to watch women as voters, too. The women's backlash in New Hampshire, older women voting for Hillary in large numbers after Obama and Edwards ganged up on her in the debate and after she expressed some human feeling about the attacks, is a sign that the anti-Hillary attacks can evoke some sympathy and a reaction in her favor. Right now attacking a woman candidate carries more political danger than attacking a male candidate. How the dance of Hillary-haters and Hillary-sympathizers would play out in a presidency is anyone's guess. Maybe it is time America faced its capacity for demonizing strong women.

Taking Hillary Clinton for herself I would think she would be as good a president as any candidate who has run in the past quarter century in terms of experience, ability, and vision. But I do not believe that women are inherently different from men and I am not sure if your question suggests that you are expecting a woman to have different hormones or style or something that would make her presidency different from a man's presidency. Based on her record there would not be anything especially different about a Hillary Clinton presidency. In political views and coalition-building style, we don't have much evidence that women are really that different from men. Women politicians like Hillary are urged by political consultants to act presidential and she does it well.

What would her policies be like? Her website tells us a lot. She is a centrist Democrat with progressive leanings. She was always different from her husband politically but she learned a lot from the polarized political atmosphere of the eight years her husband was president and she has learned a lot as Senator from New York.

I hope we give her a chance and don't hold her being a woman against her and don't hold her husband's presidency against her either. Buy hat man a chastity belt and send him on diplomatic missions--he will be an asset to her presidency.

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More Comments:

Jeff Cote - 2/8/2008

Fair, thoughtful, and well spoken.

Maarja Krusten - 2/7/2008

Several of the men who have commented here have expressed disappointment with the style and tone of the article. Does that constitute ganging up on the author? I don't find it so. Examining a writer's tactics, tone or method of communication certainly is legitimate in a public forum.

I'm a female historian and I was surprised that an article written in this manner by an academic ended up on HNN. (Keep in mind, I'm not taking a position one way or another on the substance of the article. My comments center solely on tone and language.) I can't picture a scholar such as Joan Hoff or Doris Kearns Goodwin using this tone and approach in a piece posted in a public forum. And I would hope most good male academics wouldn't use the flip side of this tone in anything they write for the public. That's just me -- I've just never been a fan of stereotypes. .

Again, I'm a woman but I don't write or speak the way this author did in my private communications, much less my public ones. That the author did was through her choice and presumably was meant to tell us something. Well, different strokes for different folks. Not all women take the same approach in debating issues, any more than all men do.

Again, when I first read this piece, I guessed that it (1) was a private communication that was posted in error, and that the author soon would appeal to the editor to take it down. I assumed that she dashed it off quickly to the student and never meant the public to see it or (2) was a parody.

Sam Clemmens - 2/6/2008

I had seen a comment that made the very same point, that Ms. Plame was not an "agent" but merely a CIA employee actually "outed" by Richard Armitage. Now it is gone. I wish that Ms. Dalton had stuck more to history, not current events. This makes me wonder if she played as fast and loose with the facts in her book about TR, which I own. As for going after her because she's a woman, really, that's absurd. To say women are less likely to "support wars" has no basis, here, and is the flip side of the coin that women are too weak to be president.

Caroline Hill - 2/6/2008

gosh. . .look at the guys piling onto Kathleen Dalton. surprise surprise! since when is it sexist to point out what all the polls show, that men are more likely to support the war than women are?

Daniel Sauerwein - 2/6/2008

Ms. Dalton raised a small but troubling question in this piece. In comparing Robert Novak to Westbrook Pegler, she asks why Novak is not in jail for outing a CIA agent, in this case Valerie Plame. Novak is not in jail because Plame was not covert. In a Washington Post article, Victoria Toensing notes that Plame was not a covert agent and therefore Novak is not guilty of any crime.

Beyond this bit of partisan sniping, I have to agree with the other comments on this piece, as I find that Dalton is way too partisan with her answer. Instead of answering the question fully and in a non-partisan way, she proceeds to turn the answer into a hate-filled Hillary campaign piece that reeks of the infamous "leave Briteny alone" video. I was deeply curious to hear how a woman president may run the nation, but all I read was an anti-Republican rant that left me thinking "leave Hillary alone." Ms. Dalton let her politics get the better of her and should let someone else answer the question of what a woman president would be like.

Michael Burke - 2/6/2008

I agree with much of what Kathleen Dalton says with regard to Hillary Clinton. I am only sorry she chose to caricature John McCain in the process, and then only to make her comparison work to Senator Clinton's advantage. The other two posters are right to point out her use of male stereotypes that she would like disapprove of were women presented steretypically. Yes, men do tend to place more of a premium on national security issues than women when they vote, and women rate education and health care higher. That's the nice thing about both men and women having the vote!
Oh, and just where does one buy a male chastity belt? Couldn't the White House chef just put some saltpeter in his food?

Millard Filmore - 2/5/2008

What a ridiculous article. I cannot believe it. I looked so forward to Ms. Dalton's book. I'm in the middle of it now. How petty, also, to bring in current politics. Historians know better. Also, if you're going to put it in, let's be accurate: Valerie Plame was not a CIA "agent." Her identity was also known. (She was something akin to an analyst. No cloak-and-dagger. No sitting there with Osama when the name was revealed.) So, that's why. Richard Armitage leaked her name. Why is he not in jail? Why, because it was all political -- as was her use of her office to get her husband the job. Honestly, why bring this garbage into a story on a woman president? Novak's hardly conservative or right-wing. Let's talk about all the mail FDR read, shall we? Or maybe about him and Alice Roosevelt eavesdropping on people having sex? Really, it's a misuse of Mrs. Roosvelt's name to go off in all directions at once. She wanted people treated equally, not to put women over men. It would also have been historically relevant to point out that the ambition of both First Ladies was stoked by the fact that their husbands were never faithful to them. What an insult to Hillary and Eleanor. I can't say enough.

Millard Filmore - 2/5/2008

And no one "sends sons and daughters off to die," not Bill Clinton in Somalia and not FDR on Iwo Jima, and not anyone in Iraq. We send them off to FIGHT -- and they volounteer.

Kevin Levin - 2/5/2008

I couldn't agree more. At least make some attempt to address the question from a historical angle. This is disappointing and should have no place on the HNN site.

Jeff Cote - 2/5/2008

It seems to me Ms. Dalton has seriously undermined what could have been an excellent opportunity to respond appropriately to a question so typical of undergraduate thinking. Dalton’s use of sexist remarks are not worthy of her academic standing. For instance, Dalton stated, "Men are more susceptible to chest-pounding defend-our-country rhetoric." This is simply unacceptable academic discourse. It is a sexist generalization devoid of research, and lacking in scholarly style. Again, "Watch those men who like Rambo movies and see how they vote." This statement is akin to something like: “Watch those women who like chick flicks and see how they vote.” Such commentary is correctly condemned by intelligent people like Ms. Dalton. Unfortunately, she seems to have become the very thing she so rightly seeks to extinguish.