Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. Here, in a rare instance, we have chosen to share a powerful letter by New Statesman writer, Sarah Ditum,in which she imagines writing to the first female president of the United States.
So hopeful were we that today would be historical for all the right reasons, that we prepared this article in advance - ready to his publish on the day Hillary Clinton became President. While the whole world reels, we can’t believe we weren’t able to, but we didn’t want this beautiful piece to go to waste. Perhaps one day the world will see that thickest glass ceiling shatter but, for now, here’s what could have been.
Dear Madam President,
I could just sit here and type that beautiful phrase all day: “Dear Madam President”.
Even as someone in a country with its second female head of government (only another 72 consecutive female prime ministers to go before the UK hits equality!), the first woman in the White House feels like a big deal. Because this is America, and America is the biggest deal of all.
The only superpower standing. A country that promises ‘liberty and justice for all’, but that for more than three centuries only put white men in the top job. When that country appoints its first woman president, and when she succeeds its first black president, you know that history has happened.
It’s taken decades, but the struggles for civil rights and women’s liberation that kicked off in the 20th century have finally taken the big prize.
I’m going to enjoy every moment of this victory.
I’ve watched women who were born before female suffrage talk about what it means to be able to vote for a woman president, and I’ve cried. I’ve listened to Michelle Obama speak for you in her thunderous indictment of Trump’s sexism, and I’ve cried. And when you appeared by video at the Democratic National Convention through a metaphorical screen of shattering glass (bye-bye, ceiling), and told the little girls in your audience that “one of you is next”, I cried.
That isn’t even a full list of all the Clinton-related crying I’ve done: I’ve cried at the pantsuit flashmob, your Saturday Night Live appearance, and sometimes just while watching the debates, from sheer agonised recognition. Madam President (never going to get old), I don’t believe that any woman who’s followed this campaign has done it without at least a flicker of recognition.
All of us know what it’s like to be constantly told we’re wrong, when we know that only way we’re really at fault is by being a woman in a world made for men. During the battle for the nomination, whenever a Sanders supporter said “I’d love to support a woman… just not this woman”, we heard the echo of every mealy-mouthed pretend-feminist we’ve ever met who were all for sex equality until it actually meant choosing a woman over a man for an important job.
Every time you were disparaged as a political ‘insider’ rather than lauded for your outstanding record of service, we recognised the sound of female success being treated with suspicion. Every time you were called “the lesser of two evils” while running against Trump – a man whose only consistent platforms have been racism, misogyny and terrifying demagoguery – we’ve remembered what it’s like to be dragged down to the level of the nearest man. When Trump called you a “nasty woman”, we knew we were nasty women too, and we made the label our own.
You’ve given so much to get this far, and now, as the first Madam President (ACTUAL BLISS!) you’re going to have to give more. You know this, because you’ve spent a long time mastering the tricky art of being female in public, but there are going to be a lot of people on the lookout for any slip or error. The nonsense about your email server? There’ll be more of that to come.
When Trump called you a “nasty woman”, we knew we were nasty women too, and we made the label our own.
And you know, from all your experience, that you can’t head this stuff off. You can’t stop the paranoid fantasies of sexists. You can’t avoid being held to a higher standard than any man, and then used to damn all women in power if you fall short.
People will compare you to some fantasy ideal of feminism in their head, and decide you’re a sellout; and at the same time, there’ll be men hopped-up on wounded ego calling you a feminazi. Backlash follows female success like an aggressive seagull follows a portion of delicious chips.
The only way to deal with it is by doing what you’ve always done: by being the best, and surrounding yourself with the best people. We need you to overcome all the unreasonable obstacles thrown your way for being a woman, and then, on top of that, we need you to be great. We need it because of what you mean as Madam President. Your country needs it.
The world needs it.
Backlash follows female success like an aggressive seagull follows a portion of delicious chips.
With a Democratic Senate on your side, you can make this happen. After this election, America is split and sore. Trump has cynically ripped the American people apart on lines of race, sex and sexuality. He’s been the ultimate identity politics candidate of the white, straight male.
At its extremes, the USA looks like two separate nations entirely, both getting wretchedly high on their own partisan Facebook feeds.
But you know that you’ve been elected to govern it as one country, and that is what you have to do – starting with installing a new Supreme Court Justice who will work to give liberty and justice to all those who’ve been historically denied it, whether for their race, their sex or their sexuality.
You can work with Black Lives Matter to end the brutalisation of black citizens. You can build on your own beautiful, radical declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” to expand women’s reproductive choice and workplace protections (it is incredible that America doesn’t have guaranteed maternity leave). You can bring in gun legislation that will make America safer. You can make the economy work for everyone, and tackle climate change in the process. And you can use your experience in foreign policy to make America a true force for good in the world.
To achieve just one of those things would be a legacy any president could take pride in. But you’re not any president. You’re the first Madam President. We know how much you’re capable of, and we’re with you.
– Another nasty woman from Pantsuit Nation