In response to a Fox News anchor questioning her statement that women should have a seat at the political table, 2020 hopeful Kirsten Gilibrand explained, “It’s not meant to be exclusionary, it’s meant to be inclusionary… We just want to add a couple chairs for the rest of us.”
With half a dozen women running for the presidency, female representation in American government has become an increasingly mainstream discussion. Though the importance of representation itself is relatively agreed upon, the language we use to describe representation and how it ties into feminist philosophy holds far-reaching implications garnering much less discussion.
What does it mean when Gilibrand says, “We just want to add a couple chairs”? What does it mean when female power means sitting at the table of patriarchal politics?
That’s the problem with reform feminism. Representation is not revolution, and a female presidency does not absolve our political systems of misogyny and oppression. It merely situates a woman in control of that system.
The electoral system, the White House, and government itself were all created by men. And it’s incredibly frustrating that we must obey the rules of the route to representation in order to obtain representation itself. There is no other way at this point. We must play into electoral politics, tone down revolution rhetoric, and win the hearts of a sexist America in order to see a female president. Resisting these systems is essentially just refusing to elect a female president until our systems change, but our systems definitely will not change so long as they are controlled by men.
Pulling up a chair to the political table validates the table itself. Pulling up a chair tells us that feminism’s success is measured by the success of women in occupying and controlling the systems built by men. Pulling up a chair defines feminism as the placement of women in traditionally male positions of power, which validates those positions of power as desirable and just.
The truth is, the position of the presidency is a position of sexism, a manifestation of misogynistic currents that underscore American government. The presidency represents executive control of female choices and the laws that contribute to discrimination against women. Ultimately, it is a male institution, not just an individual male president, that maintains misogyny in politics. And the oppression of women by historically male presidents taints the Oval Office with colors of exploitation and injustice. Electing a female president changes only the occupant, not the institution.
If the goal of feminism is to dismantle patriarchy and empower women, viewing a female presidency as a feminist victory does the exact opposite. It validates patriarchal political systems and restricts female empowerment to the boundaries of those systems. It validates the presidency—the American epitome of male supremacy—as something to be blindly desired, as if a female president intrinsically dismantles the history and future of political oppression.
Do we bend the morals of feminism in order to gain representation? Or is this too wrong to justify? Do we strive for the presidency, or do we condemn the values upon which it is founded?
Of course, this warning does not necessarily advocate for the complete abolition of politics or posit that women can never be president because it would be anti-feminist. Seeing a woman as president is extremely valuable, and representation gives women a sense of empowerment.
But is it the right kind of empowerment? It is the right kind of empowerment to tell women that we must occupy the positions of patriarchy in order to fulfill the goals of feminism? Doesn’t that seem like a paradox, and doesn’t that seem wrong?
We must be wary of our blind desire for female-controlled political systems. “Female-controlled” and “political systems” are, as of right now, oxymorons, and we continue to act as though a female-controlled political system entails a different brand of politics. Aside from the fact that women can and do support oppressive and patriarchal systems for their own benefit, a female-controlled political system makes women both the oppressor and the oppressed. Wanting to see a woman as president essentially restricts feminism to what is real right now, to the systems we see in front of us, all systems that exist to oppress women. We must take a step back and ask—do we genuinely want female-controlled American politics? Do we genuinely want to place women in existing political positions and support the values of those positions?
Glorifying a female presidency uses a patriarchal ruler to measure feminism’s success. It may be valuable to our understanding of what is possible for women in America, but it also chains us to the systems we are trying to dismantle. And of course, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, as Audre Lorde warned in her 1979 speech about intersectional feminism. We cannot use the systems of patriarchal politics in order to dismantle patriarchal politics; that will only hurt us in the long run. Anti-political, anarchist rhetoric is not popular, and it may not even be the best way to achieve an abundant feminism in this country—frankly, not many people have an answer as to how feminism should proceed. But right now, the master’s house is government, and the master’s tool, in this case, is the election of a female president.
Reform versus revolution is a complicated and abstract debate, and it can seem fruitless in the face of unending misogyny and overwhelmingly sexist systems, but we must at least attempt to discuss what feminism really is and how our tangible decisions affect our intangible, philosophical foundation. Many women want to vote for a female president in 2020, but we all must consider what that woman will do once president to not only uphold but advance, strengthen, and empower the seeds of feminism in politics.
This is, in one way, a lose-lose situation. But if we take this opportunity to have honest, accountable discussions about feminism and the moral implications of female politicians, a female president may very well be the seed of a revolution.
By Katherine Williams
Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath