You can't take it so personally, they say.
But I am.
This isn't a political post - but that would be ok if it was.
Today, Milk is launching a section on the 2016 election, to be filled by women sharing their own perspective on the campaign and candidates and all surrounding conversations.
Being a woman does not equal being a Hillary supporter. This publication is not endorsing Hillary Clinton. In fact, a few months ago, we brought the why-aren't-women-supporting-Clinton to women themselves, of different generations and perspectives, who shared how complicated and nuanced the election decision is this year.
Today I'm talking about just my perspective. I’m nervous about kicking off the conversation this way, but it’s an important conversation, and my perspective is the only one I can honestly explore.
A conversation with a 20-something man at a bar about the election left me fuming a few weeks ago. I was ranting a rant that's starting to become stale. A rant about the inequality in our campaign coverage, about the different words people use to describe a female candidate, about the double standards and the not so hidden sexism in it all. It was days after the conversation and I could still feel the rage boiling within me.
“I want a woman president, I really do,” said the guy at the bar who described himself as a "radical liberal", as evidenced, he said, by his choice to date a woman of another race, and who set off my latest rant. “But they took the spot of all the other women who were going to run. Because they ran then other people couldn’t.”
I wanted to pull his words out of his mouth, write them on the wall and force him to study his hypocrisy and confront his sexist beliefs, even if he's a "radical liberal" as he claims. The fact that he was using “they” instead of “she” was not lost on me either.
Telling a qualified female candidate that taking action on her ambitions is taking up a space for a more deserving woman is one of the oldest misogynistic default positions in the book.
"You just can't take it so personally," my friend said.
I am taking it personally, very personally. And I'm trying to understand why.
Perhaps it’s because every time someone says "I just don't like her" or "I just can't get excited for her" or "I don't trust her", I hear that subtle and consistent challenging of a woman in power that feels all too familiar. These statements that can’t be debated with logic and come from a place rooted so much deeper than the 2016 candidate agendas.
The woman they are referring to worked hard her entire life, gained experienced, played the game like the guys, and did all she was supposed to in order to prove she’s qualified and fit for the role in every way possible. When a woman like that is then told she just isn’t right for the job or is taking up space that someone else deserves, it makes me worried about every other woman trying to rise up to a position of power.
Yes, I suppose it’s a choice I’ve made to believe the widely reported story of a young Hillary who resisted the encouragement she received to enter politics, or the First Lady who was convinced to run for an empty seat in the Senate. But I wonder why so many people choose to believe the rumored story tainted with sexist stereotypes painting any ambitious woman as evil, selfish, and conspiring to sabotage the system for everyone else.
Politics are personal by design in America. The issues that affect us most closely, like when to procreate, who to marry, or what we can own, are the ones that drive people to vote. It’s not surprising then that we look for ourselves in our presidential candidates.
David Brooks wrote in a NYTimes column titled "Why Is Clinton Disliked?" that people would like Hillary more if she had more hobbies. He argued that people can’t identify with her because she works too hard, is too driven in her career, and too passionate in her work (aka a workaholic, he says), and because of that they struggle to trust or like her.
“This formal, career-oriented persona...puts her in conflict with most people’s lived experience. Most Americans feel more vivid and alive outside the work experience than within,” he wrote. “Maybe it’s doubly important that people with fulfilling vocations develop, and be seen to develop, sanctuaries outside them: in play, solitude, family, faith, hobbies and leisure.”
That kind of argument reminds me of an early career lesson that not only did I need to do my job perfectly, but I had to know the highlights of Sunday’s football game to fit in at the office, too. It’s not just about what you do, it’s about the way you do it, and how well it fits into the pre-existing culture.
In the past I loved the debate around policy during election years. This election feels different. This year every political discussion leaves me feeling powerless, angry, and sad. A strange way to feel for a feminist woman in an election with the first ever woman leading a party ticket.
I'm dragged down by the insurmountable critiques on personality, the baseless opinions, and the foot in the ground declarations on character.
I see a woman focused on a goal, determined to push for the progress she sees as possible. A woman who spent time and energy over her nearly 70 years developing skills, gaining knowledge, and practicing with purpose.
That’s a path I admire. That kind of focus and resolve in spite of attacks, many personal, is something that is hard to imagine being brave enough to experience myself.
But the experience of a woman getting close to a goal and not taking the final step because she doesn’t see herself there, because she doesn’t think it’s her turn, because she wasn’t asked or invited - that’s a story I can imagine and one I hear about too often.
The conviction of many of her friends that she should go into politics stemmed, she said, from the fact that "I was really interested in politics and I was really interested in policy and there weren’t that many young women who were. So the fact that I was kind of catalyzed people’s imagining … ‘Oh my gosh, you could run for office!’ " But, Clinton said, in those days she saw herself as “an advocate, using my legal training, using whatever other skills I had to investigate, research, speak out." In other words, Clinton pictured herself, as generations of other ambitious women had, as being of service, not as a headliner.”
That makes me think of every time I did not raise my hand to take the lead because I assumed someone else wanted it more or would be a better fit.
And it’s not just this random dude at a bar in Brooklyn who has been surprising me with his judgment. It’s the fact that this tone is echoed by those around me who I trust, the journalists I admire, the family and friends I expect to be on my side and see the world as I do. These are the people I took for granted to support the ambitious women around them, and that’s what hurts and scares me the most.
I know it’s not fair to project the potential of all women onto the experience of one person, but as the most visible and widely dissected example in my lifetime, it’s hard not to. When someone says he "just doesn’t trust her," I hear a society say they don’t trust women in power, I hear someone say they won’t trust me.
It makes me wonder if that could ever be changed. Traister asks if women can ever be liked and admired in the same way as men.
If, as in this election, a man who spews hate and vulgarity, with no comprehension of how government works, can become presidentially plausible because he is magnetic while a capable, workaholic woman who knows policy inside and out struggles because she is not magnetic, perhaps we should reevaluate magnetism’s importance. It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it?
What if the societally defined metrics to judge those seeking a position of power are already tilted in men’s favor? What if working hard, getting experience, and being smart isn’t enough? What if it’s the way in which you do it all that determines your success?
That is what makes me nervous for every woman reaching positions of power. It's what makes me nervous for my own future path and that of my sister, my cousins, and my friends. What if when she finally is in the running for the role of CEO, the spot on the board, or for President, those around her say they just don’t like her or they aren’t sure they can trust her, and other baseless statements that make it hard to argue against?
That’s why this election, I’m taking it personally.