I’ve spent most of this election season in complete denial, but the more I force myself to think about the possibility of a Trump presidency, the more I finally relate to his supporters’ impotent rage.
I too feel betrayed by a country that I thought shared my values (values like not grabbing people by the pussy). I feel insecure about my future, which I envisioned involving paid family leave, affordable health care, and peace. And, like any righteously angry American, I am looking for people to blame. I feel like something I grew up believing — something to which I feel entitled! — is being taken away from me.
I want a woman president. If I’m being honest, though, what makes me angry is less symbolic, more personal and a little petty. I feel entitled to a system in which we all agree that, in any given competition, there is a smarter, more qualified person and that person should win.
The appeal of this kind of system — meritocracy, essentially — is obvious for women, and probably anyone else without a well-trodden path to success. Historically speaking, you don’t break barriers by getting everyone in power to agree to take a good, long, unbiased look at you. You do it by proving yourself worthy based on some criteria that everybody agrees to consider objective. And meritocracy doesn’t just get you in the door. Its air of neutrality makes your presence unimpeachable. You’re not just a diversity hire; anything you have, you deserve. Meritocracy feels like the antidote to impostor syndrome.
Of course, that’s mostly untrue. The playing field of meritocracy is very, very far from level, and our definitions of “smart” and “qualified” are biased in ways that we often choose to ignore.
But the feminist promise of meritocracy was drilled into women my age big-time when we were kids. Nineties girl power was about sheer, individual achievement — Mia Hamm beating Michael Jordan one-on-one in the Gatorade commercial. Our heroines — from Harriet the Spy and Anastasia Krupnik to Hermione and Daria — were special because they were smart. My generation of girls pulled ahead of boys in the classroom and outnumbered them on college campuses, which felt like confirmation that all that stood between me and my dreams (whatever those were) was the misconception that girls aren’t good at math.
Fifteen years later, I never use any of the math I diligently learned, and the myth of meritocracy has not served me well professionally. I don’t hobnob or self-promote because I prefer to imagine I don’t need to — surely my work is already being objectively evaluated against that of my peers. Once all the work is collected and graded, I will be showered with praise, accolades, and money, right? I’m too busy preparing for this imagined test to notice opportunities or even to think hard about what I want. And I am bewildered when bad ideas beat good ones, which, it turns out, happens constantly. My girl-achiever ideology might make me just as self-defeating as the working-class Republican guy who votes for rich-guy tax cuts.
There is nothing in the girl-power playbook about how to deal when your less-smart, less-qualified rival just ignores his incompetence and tells people what they want to hear. Watching Trump debate Hillary infuriated me because he reminds me of every male clown who bulldozed me professionally by being louder, simpler, and embarrassingly self-aggrandizing. And Trump’s proximity to a job he’s not qualified for — over an obviously qualified woman — makes me feel like the foundation my ambition and self-worth are built upon is crumbling underneath me.
That’s not to say that women like me and Hillary are the victims of meritocracy. The losers in this system are people without college degrees, who aren’t part of the competition. And some argue that the ’90s liberal elite actually paved the way for Trump, by insisting that college degrees would make us all successful in the new global economy instead of protecting American workers or addressing systemic racism. Now, a generation of freelancers is saddled with student debt, racial divides are more deeply entrenched than ever, and a lot of out-of-work Americans doubt that the so-called smart and qualified people care about bringing their jobs back. And that’s valid. But the good thing about grade-grubbers is that when they’re wrong, they want to change their answer. Hillary recently told The New Yorker the education obsession of the ’90s had been a mistake. Her priority now is to stop the “denigration” of jobs that don’t require college degrees.
Merit is an imperfect metric, but compared to the other ways women are evaluated, it’s one in which we actually have some agency. Until recently, being a woman meant your value was determined by forces largely beyond your control: your appearance, your sex appeal, your fertility, the status of your male partner. Even if you lucked out, the passage of time only made you less valuable.
Meanwhile, skills, brains, and experience improve as you get older. Merit is immune to childbirth, collagen breakdown, and the vagaries of men. During the same years I was taught that girl-smart equals girl-power, I witnessed Hillary being publicly diminished by her husband’s philandering and what that implied about her value as a woman. So it’s only logical I would now like to watch her reclaim the White House as a grandmother-stateswoman so competent and qualified it doesn’t matter if you like her.
Regardless of today’s outcome, women have been robbed of the opportunity to watch a woman compete for the highest office on the basis of her skills and expertise. She will have won against the least-qualified candidate in modern history, instead of winning because of her many qualifications.
There are concerns that if she does win, Trump supporters might actually take up arms against the outcome. I hear these concerns and I wonder, Wait, so if Hillary loses, are we not rioting? As an obedient female achiever, I’m new to the cathartic allure of property damage. But a Trump victory would mean women can’t win by being good and establishing a track record of cooperation and responsibility anyway. What’s to lose?