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When will the country be ready for a woman president? | COMMENTARY

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the Colonial Early Education Program at the Colwyck Training Center in New Castle, Delaware.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the Colonial Early Education Program at the Colwyck Training Center in New Castle, Delaware. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Joe Biden was not my first choice as Democratic candidate for president. With such a strong and diverse list of candidates, a septuagenarian white man did not seem to be the person of the moment. And yet, if I wake up on Nov. 4, and he is our president-elect, I will fall to my knees weeping in joy and relief.

The horror of the Trump years will be coming to a close.

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And I have slowly come to believe that a President Biden may have the freedom to enact genuinely progressive reforms while a President Elizabeth Warren, despite her thoughtful and well-articulated plans, would have faced vicious pushback even if she had managed to pull off a victory. In part, this is because Mr. Biden has a reputation as a moderate, which is as much because of his sex, race, and persona as his actual policies. But it is also because, as Paul Waldman pointed out in The Washington Post recently, Republicans have been unsuccessful in persuading Americans to hate Mr. Biden as they did so effectively in the case of Hillary Clinton.

Because the danger of our current administration is so clear, and because we cannot risk another four years of President Trump, a large majority of Democratic voters chose the man who seemed electable. At this historical moment — a time of a raging pandemic significantly worsened by the incompetence of our current leadership, economic collapse, and demands for racial justice — many of us are breathing a sigh of relief that a comforting and relatively uncontroversial figure who seems to draw the support of a broad coalition of voters is leading the ticket.

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And yet, it is also impossible not to grieve over what this means. Nearly four years ago, I wrote an op-ed entitled “America Hates Older Women” in which I mourned the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Like many women, I was devastated that the deep-seated misogyny in our country led to the defeat of one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for president in favor of a buffoon with no experience in public service and whose claim to fame was starring in a mediocre reality TV show in which he pretended to be a great businessman. It seemed clear that, unlike other countries across the globe, Americans were unwilling to get behind a female president.

Despite the claim that Ms. Clinton was somehow uniquely loathsome, the result of a concerted 30-year campaign by Republicans, similar sexist complaints started to pop up as soon as Ms. Warren climbed in the polls last fall. Would Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris have fared any better had they risen to the top? Unlikely. Despite the assertion by Hillary-haters that the problem was not “all women,” but rather, “this woman,” somehow no woman, no matter how qualified, can meet the discerning standards of the American public for the highest office. And while female candidates did remarkably well in the 2018 congressional elections, that did not assuage Democratic fears that a woman as candidate for president would suffer the same backlash that Ms. Clinton did.

Under the circumstances, and given the existential threat that the Trump presidency poses, it is not surprising that Democrats made a pragmatic decision and chose the candidate best positioned not to turn away moderate or even conservative voters disenchanted with the destruction that the Trump administration has brought to this country. We needed to staunch the bleeding right now.

But what does this mean for our future? Will Mr. Biden really be, as he himself has assured us, a bridge to the future? Does that future include women and people of color in the top leadership positions? He has promised a woman as his vice president. Is that the best we can hope for? Does the animus toward older women mean that we must resign ourselves to supporting roles? This hostility toward women in high positions does not serve us well; as we look around the world, we see that the most successful leaders in the time of coronavirus have been women such as Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who combine intelligence and empathy with high expectations for their country’s citizens.

I am cautiously hopeful about a potential Joe Biden administration, but I still worry that Americans have taken to heart what seems to be the lesson of 2016: a woman can’t win the presidency, and it is too risky to even try. I had once hoped to see a female president in my lifetime. Now I am not sure that my daughters will live to see one.

Christine Adams (cmadams@smcm.edu) is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and currently fellow at the American Council for Learned Societies.

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