The Sovereignty of Women

tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016

Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.

In less than a year, the United States may well inaugurate its first female President. This outcome isn’t inevitable, but it’s a few blocks uptown of probable. If the delegate leads of the front-runners hold, if their Conventions don’t unseat them, and if the latest polls are to be believed, Hillary Clinton will face Donald Trump in November, and she will defeat him. If that happens, it will have less to do with Clinton’s greatness as a candidate—she’s not a great candidate—than with Trump’s lousiness as one. Still, her election would be historic.

There hasn’t been much discussion yet of the “first female President,” except insofar as Clinton’s campaign and her supporters, most notably Gloria Steinem, have been by turns despairing and outraged that younger Democratic female voters prefer Bernie Sanders, notwithstanding Clinton’s attempts to reach them through Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and “Broad City.” Instead, there’s been a lot of discussion of how badly Trump does with female voters—much of it coming from Ted Cruz’s campaign, after a spat involving the candidates’ wives—because Trump can’t stop talking about how some people are dopey and how other people are disgusting. Clinton “got schlonged” by Barack Obama; Cruz is a “pussy”; Megyn Kelly bleeds from her you-know-where; and the man himself promises that there is no problem with the size of his whatever. Cruz is betting that he can defeat Trump by winning over women, but his victory last week in the Wisconsin primary did not draw on disproportionate support from female voters, and, in a race against Clinton, he’d have plenty of trouble.

Ugly as the primary season has been, there is every reason to believe that the general election will be uglier, especially if it’s Clinton vs. Trump. The election of the first African-American President was the occasion for a great deal of jubilation, but it also unleashed a series of attacks that drew upon a particular history. Trump, notably, insisted that Obama release his birth certificate, arguing that the President was not a U.S. citizen but a Kenyan. Citizenship claims have been the elemental political and legal arguments of generations of African-Americans, none more important than that made by Dred Scott, in 1857, and denied by the Supreme Court, which ruled that no descendant of any “negro of the African race” could ever be a citizen of the United States. Attacking the legitimacy of Obama’s Presidency on the ground of citizenship, however lunatic, was by no means arbitrary. What, then, can be expected in the way of attacks on the legitimacy of a female ruler?

The question has come up before. In 1553, Mary Tudor became the first ruling queen of England. This was a problem because she was, first, a woman; second, a Catholic; and, third, beginning in 1554, a wife. Protestants who opposed her used all three facts as arguments against her, but the first case was the easiest to make. In 1558, the reformer John Knox claimed, in his treatise “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” that for the weak to govern the strong was “repugnant to Nature” and “the subversion of good order.” Mary’s defenders tended to argue that, politically speaking, she was a man, “the Prince female.” After her death, Protestants who had opposed her were left to defend the coronation of her half sister, Elizabeth, an unmarried Protestant, by arguing, begrudgingly, in favor of female rule. John Aylmer, later the bishop of London, insisted that if God decided “the female should reigne and governe” it didn’t matter that women were “weake in nature, feable in bodie, softe in courage,” because God would make every right ruler strong, and, in any case, England’s constitution abided by a “rule mixte,” in which the authority of the monarch was checked by the power of Parliament, and “it is not she that ruleth but the lawes.” Elizabeth called on a different authority: the favor of the people. ...

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