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By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*
Someday, I want to be a politician or a policy wonk (this, in full nerdy self-disclosure). But when I look around, I dread being regarded as a heartless bitch (Hillary Clinton) or a bimbo (Sarah Palin) because I am visible or powerful.
The truth is, female role models are scarce. The woman most obviously responsible for cracking the political glass ceiling time and again is Hillary Clinton, and, whether she is cast as overly feminine or shockingly masculine, she remains powerful, well-known and female in the political world – not a small feat.
She is an obvious and worthy role model, if frequently tainted by media sliming. Still, Hillary is not the woman I want to be. And, while I have no desire to diminish her accomplishments, she is one more example of a woman who threw her weight behind her husband’s political ambitions before her own. She didn’t abandon her aspirations, but she let his come first. Even while he is considered the charismatic and politically savvy one, I can’t help attributing much of Bill’s image to his partnership with Hillary. She is clearly adept in her own right and was formidably present for every step of Bill’s political path. We easily forget the nature of a political climb, one that requires the support of the other, the partner. In a case like the Clintons, it’s hard to imagine their careers in anything but lockstep, even now that they’re pushing to differentiate. It’s also hard to imagine that they didn’t calculate the Bill, then Hillary scenario as superior to a Hillary, then Bill option.
The United States, (and most of the rest of the world), lacks the ultimately high-ranking and stand-alone Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher likely in part because infiltrating the masculine power structure requires women to follow familiar, limiting patterns. Without enormous pocketbooks, and often even with them, they need familiar family names – generally associated with Daddies or husbands first. Like Hillary, though, women as far flung as Indira Gandhi, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Benazir Bhutto have played the role of partner as much as wife or daughter, in many cases fomenting their male counterparts’ successes. Again, the contributions and accomplishments of these women are not to be underrated, but compelling the next generation of women to fulfill the requisite of choice marriages or genealogy in order to attain success is to retreat from progress.
There are those who have bucked the norms and made it big (Nancy Pelosi), but they are dramatically fewer and farther between than no-name men who have won surprising political victories (Obama is an immediate example but the list is lengthy).
Our political makeup reflects the intrinsic and self-enforced limits on women in the United States; only 17% of the representation in Congress is female. Only six of the fifty current American governors are women. This is largely because we don’t run, but with the really big fish, it’s also because we don’t run first.
So I want to know, why didn’t Hillary’s career come first?
We are culturally predisposed to see women as less influential and less serious than men. Not only is that a factual miscalculation, it is also a betrayal to a generation of political minds who have been told that feminism is old-fashioned. My generation is looking for guidance and finding very few solo acts to follow (but check out EMILY’s List to read about some of them). We are more than man’s confidante or adjunct.
Our mothers made great strides, but we have a torch to carry and new battles to fight. For support and training, look to Emily’s List, The White House Project and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. The power to change the status quo rests in our young hands.
*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications Intern and a student at Emory University, where she is pursuing a degree in International Studies.