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Barack Obama: Our First Female President?

June 30, 2010

You may have seen this commentary by Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post by now, but it’s worth singling out for special mention because while she points out the obvious- that gender stereotypes still exist, men and women communicate differently, etc. she still seems to imply that a male style of leadership is more effective in a crisis. Here is an excerpt:

If Bill Clinton was our first black president, as Toni Morrison once proclaimed, then Barack Obama may be our first woman president.

Phew. That was fun. Now, if you’ll just keep those hatchets holstered and hear me out.

No, I’m not calling Obama a girlie president. But . . . he may be suffering a rhetorical-testosterone deficit when it comes to dealing with crises, with which he has been richly endowed.

It isn’t that he isn’t “cowboy” enough, as others have suggested. Aren’t we done with that? It is that his approach is feminine in a normative sense. That is, we perceive and appraise him according to cultural expectations, and he’s not exactly causing anxiety in Alpha-maledom.


Women, inarguably, still are punished for failing to adhere to gender norms by acting “too masculine” or “not feminine enough.” In her fascinating study about “Hating Hillary,” Karlyn Kohrs Campbell details the ways our former first lady was chastised for the sin of talking like a lawyer and, by extension, “like a man.”

Could it be that Obama is suffering from the inverse?

If we accept that premise, even if unseriously proffered, then we could say that Obama displays many tropes of femaleness. I say this in the nicest possible way. I don’t think that doing things a woman’s way is evidence of deficiency but, rather, suggests an evolutionary achievement


The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Granted, the century is young — and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Obama’s rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush’s boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.


Indeed, negative reaction to Obama’s speech suggests the opposite. Obama may prove to be our first male president who pays a political price for acting too much like a woman. [emphasis added]

Ok, where to begin? First let me begin by saying that I “get” that Parker is not trying to insult Obama by saying he may be our “first female President,” because she says outright that she means it in a positive way. My problem is that she then goes on to accuse him of passivity, of “deferring, weighing and considering” and suggests that all of these things are inherently female traits and that they are ineffective in a crisis. At least that’s how I read it and in that reading its hard to not come away feeling that both men and women have been insulted by a commentary which casually tosses around loaded assumptions and stereotypes about gender without ever getting past those stereotypes. For example, in one part of her commentary (not in the above excerpt) she refers cattily to Obama as a “chatterbox” when discussing his communication style.

Given that in our society women in leadership positions still face a considerable amount of sexism and have every word, posture, pair of shoes scrutinized in an effort to determine if she is “strong” enough to lead without being so strong as to threaten the status quo, it’s hard to see how comparing Obama to a woman will be construed as anything other than a negative. It would be one thing if Parker cited stereotypically female communication traits which she believes Obama demonstrates and then links them to positive elements of leadership, for example in the area of consensus-building, but she doesn’t. It would seem that Parker, while saying initially that Obama’s more feminine qualities/traits are a plus, perhaps doesn’t really believe that given she spends the rest of the commentary essentially arguing that those qualities have hampered his ability to do his job. In addition, I feel like she’s insulted by men by making sweeping generalizations about their apparent inability to apparently do anything other than act like a bunch of Alpha males, particularly in the communication and decision-making department.

Another problem I have with this commentary is it conveniently fits nicely into the whole “Democrats are weak” meme- a little too conveniently if you ask me.

I realize that perhaps Parker is arguing that the traits are not a negative per se but rather that the problem is with how they are perceived by a public which still harbors contradictory and at times outright sexist views. But the problem is, I don’t really see/hear that in her analysis. I took a quick trip around the rightie blogosphere and as you can imagine, they are having a ball with this whole “Barack Obama is our first female President” idea, which speaks to what I said above about the whole Democrats=weakness meme. It also probably speaks to a hefty dose of sexism, given that many of the blogs clearly equate “female” or “woman” with “wimp” and “ineffective.”

Basically, I found her whole analysis overly-simplistic, a bit insulting and completely disjointed.


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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    June 30, 2010 8:53 pm

    You know, I’m glad you posted this because after I read her Parker’s article earlier today I was like “huh?” I had a visceral negative reaction to it but was a bit confused by the whole “oh, but Obama being a woman isn’t a bad thing” claim. I totally agree with you- it is a confusing, superficial analysis which largely makes no sense. Even when she does make a salient point, she then rebuts it with her next sentence. It seems like basically she thinks the POTUS isn’t being manly enough in dealing with the BP oil spill, and claims that he’s being too “female”- which she says isn’t a bad thing, but at the same time she’s saying it is.

    Don’t they have editors at the WaPo? Someone to say “hey, catchy attention-grabbing headline but the stuff underneath makes no sense”?

    It really is incredible to me that the Kathleen Parkers, Deborah Solomons and Bill Kristols of the world get paid good money to write what is essentially, garbage.

    • discourseincsharpminor permalink
      June 30, 2010 9:42 pm

      I, too, agree with you. It rubs me the wrong way while simultaneously leaving me confused whether or not “female” is code for “bad”. I thought I was missing something, but it seems it really is that convoluted.

  2. jillforhill permalink
    June 30, 2010 8:59 pm

    Bill talked and talked,talked to experts in every field and everyone else but he was also the alpha male and could get a little emotional. There is no way hillary would have handled the oil disaster the way obama has. In my opinion hillary and bill blow her article apart by their personalities and how we they work. Parker is full of it.

  3. theprosecutrix permalink
    June 30, 2010 11:40 pm

    I honestly can’t get over the title and intro. I see where she’s coming from but I would never have considered him a “female” president. To me, there will be no female president until we literally have a female president, just as Bill was never truly the first black president.

  4. Jackie permalink
    July 1, 2010 12:24 am

    I just had a negative reaction when I first read this . There is just something about it that rubs me the wrong way.

  5. RE: permalink
    July 1, 2010 2:30 am

    It’s almost like she was going to do an all out sexist turn and then would pull the wheel back…then turn again….and then correct back. Maybe her name should be Sybil Parker?

  6. Tovah permalink
    July 1, 2010 6:56 am

    I read it and it was like a rollercoaster- I agree with all of you and also everything stacy said in her post- Parker tries to claim she’s not calling him a woman as an insult but then goes on to criticize everything he does based on his “tropes of femaleness.”

    The whole thing is bizarre and the at the end of the day she seems to be saying he’s weak.

  7. July 1, 2010 12:39 pm

    To say that Obama’s deference to BP in the early days of the catastrophe was “female” is laughable. It could be called lack of leadership, kowtowing to corporate America, a lack of action borne out of well-meaning ignorance, or incompetence.

    Frankly, the USA had a prime opportunity to elect a first female president in 2008, and the country did not follow through and elect Hillary.

    And, in my opinion, it’s good to be clear about racial distinctions, too. Bill Clinton was not the first African-American president. And Obama is the first bi-racial president.

  8. Carolyn-Rodham permalink
    July 1, 2010 2:07 pm

    In one fell swoop, Parker manages to diss Obama for being “too female” (the pejorative overtones are unmistakable) AND to remind everybody why they hated Hillary — for being “too male.” Too convenient, indeed, Stacy given that she’s talking about the #1 and #2 most likely Democratic nominees for Prez in 2012. But hey, put ’em together on the same team and you’ve got one heckuva fully functioning kiss-ass hermaphrodite.

    • July 1, 2010 7:31 pm

      I totally agree

      • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
        July 2, 2010 10:28 am

        Oops, I meant kick-ass of course!
        *slinking off to analyze the implications of my Freudian sl…I mean poor typing*

        • July 3, 2010 10:14 am

          You know, I read your comment a couple of times before I realized you made a Freudian slip- kiss ass instead of kick ass…hmmmm….I guess there could be a few interpretations of that, LOL!

  9. November 25, 2012 8:44 am

    You should be a part of a contest for one of the best websites online. I am going to highly recommend this blog!

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