Against the Trope of "the First ____ President"

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
May 17 2012 7:55 PM

Against the Trope of "the First ____ President"

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Is Barack Obama really "the first female president?"

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Dana Milbank declared Barack Obama the first female president on Tuesday, riffing on this week’s Newsweek cover, which presents Obama under a nimbus of rainbow light and beside the words “the first gay president.” As many have observed, the trope is nothing new. Toni Morrison hailed Bill Clinton as the first black president back in 1998, citing, among other things, his poor upbringing in Arkansas in a single-parent home and his love for the saxophone. And Obama’s already earned the epithets “first Hispanic president” (2009), “first Asian-American president” (2009), and “first Jewish president” (last September).     

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

In one sense, Milbank’s characterization flows naturally from these earlier labels. And like the others, it struck me as somehow unfair: People—at least a few—were sure to see something derisive in the phrase. Obama would suffer a bit for supporting women’s rights.

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I do not mean that most readers are likely to recoil from femininity or blackness or gayness or Jewishness or whatever per se. (This specific instance does get complicated when you factor in the prejudice attached to “girly” guys. Unmanliness is itself a problem for any Democrat fighting charges of elitism—and as a trait it colludes in the popular imagination with wiliness and dishonesty, two more political no-nos.) But people may still react badly. If they suspect that Obama derives advantage from perceived membership in a group to which he (obviously) doesn’t belong, they may resent him. They’ll see him as pandering or duplicitous, even if he never crowned himself the first female anything.

More to the point, the whole exercise deflects attention from Obama’s actual efforts on behalf of women. We’re so busy breathing life into stale stereotypes about what it means to be gay or Hispanic or black or female (rather than just to support these groups) that we lose sight of the policies that started the conversation in the first place. Milbank’s article provides a sterling example of this. The columnist says that by speaking at Barnard’s commencement (for which he donned a flowing gown, the cross-dresser!), appearing on The View, and complimenting the fairer sex, Obama “brazenly flaunted his feminine mystique.” In other words, the POTUS was play-acting. Forget that his record on gender equality is pretty great, especially compared to the other guy’s. (Forget, too, that Obama would be foolish not to capitalize at all on his popularity among female voters). Obama wore a dress in public, attended an all girls’ college graduation, and chatted with Whoopi, Barbara, Sherri, and the rest on daytime television. Holy mackerel, he wants to be a woman.  

In somewhat related news, BuzzFeed recently posted a vertical of images of the president “hanging out with women.” (Is it worth mentioning that it would be laughably easy to dig up a bunch of photographs of Obama surrounded by men?) The gag, which I guess depends on cognitive dissonance between “presidential” and “woman,” makes it all too easy to dismiss Obama’s support for choice, contraception, workplace equity, and more. He’s the ladies’ favored candidate because he hangs out with ladies. End of story. 

What I’m trying to say is: The jump from naming someone the first x president to writing him off as merely a panderer seems dangerously short. The issues of identity and subterfuge that the trope brings up confuse something that should be simple, like a strong record on women’s rights.

Not only that, but they cause us to dwell on silly stereotypes about what it means to be x, instead of just going ahead and trying to patch up society’s inequalities.  

Finally, if none of the above convinces you that the turn of phrase should be retired, consider how all these fake “firsts” diminish Barack Obama’s very real achievement as the first black president. And think about whether we might grow complacent, given all the faux barriers our leader has broken. Let’s not imagine that having a president sympathetic to “lady issues” releases us from the duty to someday put a real woman in the White House.

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