Last year, when my daughter, Sophie, was seven and in second grade, her teacher taught a unit about our country's 44 U.S. Presidents. One day, Sophie came home from school, and with a very serious look in her eye asked, "Mom, is it illegal for a woman to be president?" Shocked that a little girl could be asking such a question in 2015--shouldn't the answer to that question be obvious?--I stood still for a moment, uncharacteristically silent, trying to figure out how to respond.
"No," I answered, launching into a speech about politics and gender and the power and importance of feminism.
"Good," she answered. "Then I will be the first woman president."
My daughter has made achieving that milestone her number one priority. So much so, in fact, that she applauded when Carly Fiorina dropped out of the election earlier this week; she hopes Bernie will trump Hillary so that she still has a chance at her goal. While I'm trying to encourage her nascent interest in the daily highs and lows of presidential politics, I've also let her know that I hope we have a president who's a woman long before she's old enough to vote, let alone run for office.
An amazing array of thought leaders have jumped into the debate around whether women should be voting for Hillary because she's a woman, and whether that's the best way to advance equal rights for women--or whether being gender-blind and voting solely based on ideology is a sign of greater progression.
What my daughter's reaction to this election cycle strongly suggests to me is that both are important. As a woman who bridges two generations--that of the second-wave feminists so well-represented by Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, who have been vocal about the need to stand behind Hillary as a woman--and the millennial generation, which has been vocal about the need to vote solely based on policy--both perspectives play an important role in advancing the position of women in politics. While I instinctively favor the "millennial" approach, what my daughter taught me is that to discount identity may be naïve. My daughter isn't saying she wants to be president because of the issues. She's saying she wants to be president because she wants to break a barrier--and the only way to break that barrier is to capitalize on her identity to rectify the fact that women have been absent from our highest levels of leadership for far too long.
Just as it was critical to have a Catholic and then an African-American man ascend to the presidency, in order to know, deeply, that barriers constituted around religion and race could be destroyed, it's crucial for the world to see that a woman can lead the country. We all know the importance of role models for breaking stereotypes, in demonstrating for ourselves and for the next generation what is possible. But we also know that having the ability to vote "gender blind," staying focused not on identity but on the issues, signals a huge leap forward for woman- and man-kind.
Can we have the latter without the former? Hillary supporters suggest that in her candidacy we have an opportunity for both. For Bernie supporters, it's not so easy, since voting for Bernie doesn't put a woman in the Oval Office. But could his progressive politics ultimately do more for women than simply having a woman in office? And by arguing we're "past" the need to think about gender, can we maybe make it so?
Regardless of how the election turns out, I'm grateful that Hillary has demonstrated that a woman can be a formidable candidate for president, and that both she and Bernie are addressing issues of wage equality and equal rights. I'm also grateful that we're having this debate. It's only by talking about the ongoing legacy of discrimination, of stereotyping, of the vertical and horizontal barriers to success, that we can truly make change--and that questions like my daughter's will become obsolete.