Anthea McTeirnan: Should we vote for women because they are women?

Debate over democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will have an echo in Irish election because of gender quotas

Ballot Paper. More women than ever will be on ballot papers as a result of gender quotas. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

A letter from a group of feminists appeared in US periodical the Nation in February 2008. The feminists had gathered for coffee and cakes and other female-friendly fodder to circumvent a potential feud as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama strove to secure the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Intersectionality was going large, and the circle between gender and race had to be squared. Among the women pouring the cream and slicing the sponge that day were uber-feminist Gloria Steinem and Columbia law professor Patricia Williams.

“If we could get over our fixation on a fantasy that many of us hoped to see realised in our lifetimes, maybe we could finally turn to the issues that each of them brings to the table. We cannot remain tangled by stereotypes that demean with their sweeping divisiveness and historical cliche,” the letter read.

Gosh. How times haven’t changed.


The US remains "tangled" up in stereotypes, and Clinton is back in the presidential race she lost to Obama. This time, the man giving her a run for her money is Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who just won the New Hampshire primary with almost double Clinton's vote.

Now that the US has had a black president, surely voters are gagging for the chance to return a woman? Or is that just “fixating on a fantasy”?

The candidates have a few more fences to jump before they can saddle up in front of the whole US electorate. Clinton may have been second in New Hampshire but surely she will win if the stands are packed with her fellow countrywomen?

Well, maybe not. Looking at the figures from the recent primary, 66 per cent of men voted for Sanders. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? But hang on a minute: 55 per cent of women also voted for Sanders. So Clinton also lost in that binary gender competition. So much for the fantasy.

Also noteworthy is that 74 per cent of voters aged 18-44 voted for Sanders and not for Clinton. And it was a comment on this youth wing of the Sanders camp that scuttled Steinem recently when she suggested that young women were supporting Sanders because “when you’re young you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie”.


Steinem says she was cut off on a television programme before she had completed her sentence, but the damage was done and a catfight between feminists of all hues and demographics erupted in a manner that will have entranced fans of female mud-wrestling.

This girl-on-girl wrangling is a powerful digression that suits those who are quite happy that women remain silenced in the fight to increase their political representation.

The US is 72nd in a global table of women’s political participation, with numbers similar to Saudi Arabia’s. Women make up half the US population but hold fewer than 20 per cent of congressional seats. Those are not stereotypes, those are facts.

Not everyone is staying in the closet. The GAA has employed the phrase “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” to good purpose, and some of the US’s leading feminists feel they have waited too long to see their gender shine back at them from the top table.

Writing in the Nation, Katha Pollitt says that despite her robust feminist views, she has voted for the man over the woman candidate in previous Democratic primaries. Obama was the most recent recipient of her electoral largesse.

“As so often happens, I have met the enemy and it is me,” she wrote.

This time, Pollitt will vote for a woman. She will vote for Clinton. And she is getting some stick for her decision. This "extraordinary hostility to the mere notion of women putting a collective thumb on the scale for a woman – not Sarah Palin, but a smart and highly qualified liberal Democrat" has got her thinking.

Collective voting

The Irish, the Italians and the Jewish have a long tradition of collective voting on the grounds of ethnicity, she says. And while she does not think Obama has delivered for his black supporters, that was not the only reason that he got African-American votes.

“The sheer fact of a black president is an enormous thing and not just for black people. That’s why elderly ladies in Harlem are still wearing their Obama buttons eight years later,” she wrote.

Pollitt wants to know why women should be different.

“I want to tear my hair out when women say they don’t support Hillary because she’s ‘not likable’ or ‘too ambitious’ or ‘too stiff’. Ladies, you’re not voting for a best friend.”

“Choose Bernie if you like – I won’t say a word against him,” Pollitt adds.

And who can? You can see how super hard it is not to vote for a woman. For the first time. As a figurehead.

Women may find themselves with a similar micro-dilemma when presented with the ballot paper in Ireland’s forthcoming general election, where gender quotas have been implemented for the first time.

It will give us a taste of the dilemma facing US Democrats. Should women and the men who care about equality vote for the symbol or the policy? You decide.