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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Women and American politics

Recently on his show, Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly pondered the downsides of electing a female president. While he maintained a comically light atmosphere with his two female guests (a Democrat and a Republican), the underlying message of the broadcast had a darker tone. O’Reilly opened with a reminder of a previous episode, where U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., felt that her presidential campaign faltered because some Americans aren’t ready for a female president.

While some Americans (including me) may not be ready for a President Michele Bachmann, the idea that Americans (and specifically Republicans) couldn’t respect a female commander-in-chief is hard for me to understand. After all, Arizona is doing just fine with their Republican female governor, Jan Brewer. In fact, Brewer is the third consecutive female governor of Arizona. She’s not the female governor of Arizona; she’s the 4th governor of Arizona who happens to be a woman. While her recent veto of an anti-gay bill may cause a temporary blowback, Brewer has established herself as a hardline conservative in the past and continues to enjoy wide support in a fiercely Republican state.

The same can be said of Nikki Haley, incumbent governor of the equally conservative South Carolina. As the youngest sitting governor in the U.S. (she’s 42), Haley has no shortage of support for her conservative policies (such as illegally detaining Occupy protesters and limiting women’s reproductive rights). While it’s true that 20 of the 35 women ever elected as governors of a U.S. state have been Democrats, the party that claims to support women’s empowerment can’t lay any special claim to strong female leaders. After all, the only female governors of New Jersey, Massachusetts and Hawaii (all considered fairly liberal states) have been Republicans. Meanwhile, New York and California have never had a woman hold the high office.

With a substantial history of strong women as governors, senators and secretaries of state, it is all the more dismaying that women like Bachmann discourage female presidential candidates and talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly joke about their downsides. While it’s clear that O’Reilly’s scornful humor is directed at Hillary Clinton in her likely bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, his statements far exceeded U.S. politics. He noted that there haven’t been many strong female leaders and went on to ponder if having a female president might make the U.S. look weak in the eyes of world leaders like Vladimir Putin or “the mullahs of Iran.”

I wonder if O’Reilly is familiar with Yulia Tymoshenko? Or Benazir Bhutto? Or Park Geun-hye? Tymoshenko was the prime minister of Ukraine before she was arrested and imprisoned in a trial widely decried by international observers as being politically motivated. Tymoshenko directly opposed joining Putin’s Customs Union (the very same political issue that currently divides Ukrainians). To be fair, women also hold some of Russia’s high offices, from Empress Catharine the Great to former governor and Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko. Benazir Bhutto was the first prime minister of Pakistan, back in 1988. I don’t know about my readers, but being the first woman leader of Pakistan seems pretty impressive to me.

My personal favorite, though would have to be President Park Geun-hye. Westerners may not immediately recognize that this name describes a woman and probably don’t know that she currently leads the Republic of Korea (otherwise known as South Korea). While we alternately laugh and cower at the nuclear threats of Kim Jong-un, Park commands the first line of defense against a potential nuclear arsenal. But why stop at Park? What about Indira Gandhi, or Golda Meir, or Margaret Thatcher, or Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Dilma Rousseff or Eva Peron? What about King Njinga, the Angolan queen so powerful that she demanded to be called “king”? Or Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who reigned for 50 years? What about Lili’uokalani, the last Queen of Hawaii, who stood before the U.S. government and demanded her people’s freedom? Please, tell me, O’Reilly, if these women were weak, what constitutes strength?

Was Bill O’Reilly joking about the downsides of a female president? Probably. Was Michele Bachmann? Doubtful. O’Reilly was right that there haven’t been many female leaders, but he obviously hasn’t looked into it much when he complains that they weren’t strong. And that’s really at the root of the problem, isn’t it? While he jokes about the idea of women being less qualified, his casual statements reveal that (in spite of such figures as Margaret Thatcher or Park Geun-hye) he still really believes that women just aren’t cut out for the Oval Office. It’s a shame, because his party has had a pretty good track record with fielding female candidates, if windbags like him would get out of the way.

Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at op-ed@thetriangle.org.