During the Republican debate this week, one exchange that was especially maddening for female viewers ensued when the candidates were asked what seemed like a straightforward question: “Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced that a woman will appear on the $10 bill. What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill?”
This is a real policy question that the Treasury Department is actively considering, and on this blog Lila has written about how important it is to have visual representations of female role models. But the male moderator Jake Tapper framed the question as if it were a joke by repeatedly telling the audience – and the candidates – that the question was “light” and “lighthearted.” Most of the male candidates took Tapper’s invitation to levity and gave answers that were flippant or downright dismissive. (The transcript is here if you want to follow along.)
Rather than proposing viable choices for the $10 bill, three separate candidates named women in their immediate families. Front-runner Donald Trump joked that his daughter should be on the $10 bill “because she’s been sitting for three hours.” Second-in-the-polls Ben Carson named his mother. Former Governor Mike Huckabee proposed his wife because, in his words, “she’s put up with me.” Huckabee ended with a sexist dig that implied that his wife was little more than a mooch. If his wife were on currency, Huckabee guffawed, “that way, she could spend her own money.”
Two separate candidates trivialized the question by proposing women who were not even American. Former Governor Jeb Bush picked the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, joking, “Probably illegal, but what the heck?” Governor John Kasich doubled down, going for a woman who was not only foreign but also a Catholic religious figure when he named Mother Theresa. In words that echoed Bush, Kasich acknowledged: “Well, it’s probably not, maybe, legal….”
In fact, the eleven Republicans on the stage could only name four American women who had civic accomplishments of national significance: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Abigail Adams, and Rosa Parks (the selection for three separate candidates).
Carly Fiorina, the only female candidate in the Republican race, took a different tack, suggesting that systemic change was more important than symbolic change. She answered, “I wouldn’t change the $10 bill, or the $20 bill. I think, honestly, it’s a gesture. I don’t think it helps to change our history. What I would think is that we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation, and this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
Fiorina’s response was clearly a more serious answer than most of the other candidates, but even she set up a false dichotomy. Women in the United States don’t have to choose between symbolic change and systemic change – we can have, and should have, both.