The Woman Card


Me among supporters of women’s suffrage at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY; October 2010.

Yesterday, May 15, 2016, was the anniversary of the day Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. The first Women’s Rights Convention had been held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY. In 1869, as the United States was considering the 15th amendment to the Constitution giving African American men the right to vote, Stanton and Anthony believed that once that happened, there would be no further interest in working for the right of women to vote as well. Whether they were right in their assessment is beside the point for what interests me at the moment, which are the dates.

In 1848, only 100 years before I was born, the first women’s rights convention was held, and more than 20 years later, in 1869, the women’s suffrage association was formed. It took 51 more years before the 19th amendment was ratified, finally giving women the right to vote. My maternal grandmother, who was born in 1888, wouldn’t have been allowed to vote until the 1920 presidential election, even though she was married and had five children with a sixth on the way. My own mother was born almost nine years before women were allowed to vote. Women were given the right to vote only 28 years before I was born. It took 132 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified for the men in charge at the time to FINALLY allow half the population of the United States to have a say in the election of their leaders. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Every time I think about all that, I have to just say, “Wow!”

We are not all that far removed from denying women (who, according to an old Chinese proverb, “hold up half the sky”) the ability to participate in choosing their leaders. So when one presidential candidate in 2016 accuses another of playing “the woman card,” saying that the only reason people vote for her is because she’s a woman and if she were a man only five percent would do so, the comment is personally offensive to me as a woman who less than 100 years ago wouldn’t have been able to vote at all, much less for a woman. I’ll admit that my reaction is at least somewhat influenced by my negative opinions about the person who made the accusation, but it goes beyond that to the visceral feelings such comments stir up in me.

The charge of “playing the woman card” puts women in an impossible bind. First, it suggests that nothing the woman has done in her life is important besides being a woman. A long resume of accomplishments doesn’t count. The charge confirms what many women have often felt: they have to work much harder and be much better than their male counterparts to be considered equally competent and skilled, and they are held to higher standards than men.

Second, it is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. If you do play the card – that is, use the fact of being a woman to your advantage, perhaps by acknowledging with some pride that you’ll be the first female senator or governor or president or chair of a board or pastor or bishop – you’re called out for doing so. You’re seen as being qualified only because you are a woman and not because you have relevant credentials and experience; you’re accused of pandering; you’re said to be acting like a victim. On the other hand, if you don’t play the card, you’re seen as running from what could clearly be an advantage in some circumstances. After all, women can offer helpful and unique perspectives on the issues, simply by virtue of being women. Or you’re seen as betraying other women (and young girls) who look to you as a role model for their own aspirations. Or, you’re accused of “acting like a man,” whatever that means, and denying one of the most fundamental parts of your identity.

I believe that calling someone out for playing the woman card is evidence of the ongoing presence of sexism (defined as prejudice and discrimination against women simply because they are women) in American life. Of course, I can’t prove it and many people won’t admit it, but that’s certainly what it feels like when a woman with relevant qualifications and experience is accused of playing the woman card. Is there a “man card” and who’s playing that?

Thank goodness I have the right to vote. If this were 1916 instead of 2016, I wouldn’t be able to!






3 thoughts on “The Woman Card

  1. Well said, Harriet. I find the conundrum of which you write so infuriating. I completely agree that sexism drives much of the situation. It seems like we’re going backwards.

  2. Interesting that this is the topic you chose to write on. I just finished “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” a book that tells of the frustration Julia Ward Howe had with both her husband “Shev” & much of society back in the same time period you’ve mentioned here. It very much brought out how Julia’s ideas, poems & writings weren’t accepted, many times, simply because she was a woman! Julia was , of course, part of the women’s suffrage movement.
    And, we won’t mention the name of the person who used the “woman card” in this incident you are writing about. Let’s just say that the qualifications of the person who used the excuse of the “woman card” cannot near “trump” the qualifications of the woman this biased person was trying to rattle when he put his foot in his mouth! I may or may not be a fan of the woman of whom this “trumpeter” was speaking.

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