Stronger Together: A Deeply Feminist Approach

Political discussions about feminism are almost always centered on issues like reproductive freedom, equal pay and things like paid family leave. Those are all extremely important and, thanks to Democrats, are front and center in this election.

But feminism isn’t simply about getting those issues right. It’s much bigger than that. I thought about the bigger picture as I watched people respond to Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention last night. Others have mentioned this in other contexts, but the truth is that we have built a detailed vision in this country about how presidents are supposed to act and what they’re supposed to sound like. And let’s be honest, that vision is rooted entirely in our history of judging the effectiveness of male presidents. We are now watching the first female nominee of a major party be judged by how well she “performs” when it comes to those expectations.

As Matthew Yglesias wrote yesterday in preparation for Clinton’s speech last night, “Hillary Clinton is bad at speeches for the exact reasons she’d be a good president.” After the fact, most commentators think that Clinton performed pretty well last night. But as I watched both the lead-up to the speech and the discussion afterward, I couldn’t help going where Yglesias went and wondered why it is that we put so much emphasis on judging how effectively a president delivers a speech and so little on the ideas they communicate and/or how they actually govern. Yglesias’ point is that, when it comes to writing speeches, Clinton uses the same approach she would bring to governing…collaboration. That might dilute a personal tone in her speeches, but think for a moment about what democracy demands of a president.

…viewed in comparison to the powers wielded by other heads of government, the American presidency is actually an extraordinarily weak office. Our federal system diffuses power down to the states and to myriad small-time local elected officials. We further diffuse power out to America’s unusually powerful judicial branch. The president’s legislative powers are sharply circumscribed by a bicameral legislature whose Senate even has the power to reject the president’s executive appointments…

The upshot of this is that a successful president needs to govern collaboratively.

At a moment when Clinton’s opponent is selling himself on the idea that “I alone can fix it,” her campaign slogan is “Stronger Together.” That is a perfect distillation of the difference between two forms of power I’ve been writing about for years: domination vs partnership. For centuries, our patriarchal cultures have been built on the idea that domination is the only form of power. At this generational moment in history, that assumption is being challenged both globally and in our personal lives. Perhaps it is time to start judging presidential candidates on how effectively they collaborate with others. To do so would start to fundamentally change not only how we talk about candidates, but perhaps how campaigns are structured altogether. Beyond the policy issues…that is the kind of thing a deep feminism can bring to the table.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .