The other day Hillary Clinton made the kind of pledge that makes waves, but which should not, in all honesty, have to be made at all: "I am going to have a cabinet that looks like America," she said to Rachel Maddow at MSNBC's Democratic town hall, "and 50 percent of America is women." I all but swooned.
Government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people should, by definition and without need for further clarification, represent all the people — though of course, when President Lincoln said those words in the killing fields of Gettysburg, the majority of people living in America (all women, millions of enslaved and free African Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Native Americans) couldn't even vote. Fulfilling the Constitution's promise that we will together build "a more perfect union" is clearly an ongoing task.
But okay, here we are. It's 2016 and a mere 96 years after the 19th Amendment declared that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged... on account of sex," we have a very real chance of electing a female president. Shirley Chisholm paved the way in 1972, and Clinton herself came pretty close in 2008, but now it really might happen.
To be sure, representation doesn't require some kind of one-to-one proxy arrangement, and I've already argued that feminism doesn't require a blood oath to candidate Clinton. I've felt very well represented by many men in politics — not least President Obama and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin — and rest assured that if the 2016 election had come down to Carly Fiorina and Any Male Democrat, I would have very happily (and with a certain degree of urgency) voted for Any Male Democrat.
Ideally, with no legal obstacles in the way, meritocracy would work as intended and the most qualified people would rise to the top of their respective fields as a matter of course. Easy-peasy, no quotas or sweeping pronouncements necessary. We can see how well that's worked out for women in business, academia, the legal system, Hollywood, sports, journalism, punditry, and Clinton's chosen field of endeavor, politics.
In fact, Clinton's candidacy is its own a cautionary tale against such magical thinking. American women have had the vote for 96 years, and in that near-century of time, there has been a single viable female presidential candidate — not once, but twice. The same woman.
During that near-century, how many women have served in cabinet positions? Writing for The Washington Post, Paul Waldman did the math and the answer is dismal: 29 — eight of them in the last eight years. Alongside 509 men. No woman has ever served as secretary of the treasury or defense.
Humanity will not quietly shed centuries of cultural expectations, social conditioning, and institutional structures (such as, for instance, the rules that until the mid-20th century kept women out of America's top law schools, which have always served as political launching pads) just because a few good laws are in place and a few nice things are said about equality. Consider that five decades after the Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure African Americans equal access to the most basic right and responsibility of citizenship, the battle to strip that right is once again underway. Human progress is not inexorable — we have to fight for, and then defend, every inch.
Classes of people who have been systematically prevented from participating in the fullness of civic life require more than good laws or good intentions. They require policies and actions that help mitigate the wrong that has been done. Put another way: If the only people in your professional contacts list are straight, white men — you need to start calling people you don't know.
I would argue that the entire country — men, women, and children; black, brown, and white; straight, gay, and other — would benefit if we were to allow ourselves the wisdom, creativity, and experience of a genuine cross-section of our citizenry. You get a better country! You get a better country! Everybody gets a better country!
But honestly, much as I like sounding like Oprah with the cars, that's not even my point. My point is that women — some of whom are black; Latina; gay; handicapped; Sikh; Muslim; and every other systematically underrepresented group in this country — have the right to be fully represented in America's democracy. We are 50 percent of the country. We deserve to have a voice commensurate with our numbers.
And anyway, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did exactly what Clinton is proposing when he took office. When asked why, he shrugged and said: "Because it's 2015."
Come on, America, let's get on it. We're already a year behind Canada. And I, for one, am sick of waiting.