Feminist Asian Dad and Daughter Read Ali Vitali’s Book “Electable”

A few months ago, my 16-year-old daughter and I posted our conversation about the movie She Said on this blog, and several readers encouraged us to do the same thing for other topics! That meant a lot to us, so here’s a transcripted version of our latest chat. It’s about the popular 2022 nonfiction book by NBC News correspondent Ali Vitali titled Electable: Why America Hasn’t Put a Woman in the White House … Yet. Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity, and as in our previous convo, I’m denoted by F. A. D. (Feminist Asian Dad) and my daughter by J. J. for 姐姐 (Pinyin: jiĕ jie), which means older sister in Chinese.

F.A.D.: Ali and I first connected back in 2014 or ‘15 when I worked in women’s rights advocacy, so I was really excited when this book came out. I had messaged her in 2016 and said, “As a feminist reporter covering Trump, listening to his sexism for hours, day after day, perhaps you could write a book about the experience.” She replied that it was something she was already thinking about. So for me, reading this book has been really exciting. How did the book strike you?

That’s Ali in the middle of it all, getting comments from then-presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (@alivitali Instagram)

J.J.: I got especially invested in it near the end, because that was when everything was being tied together and merged with a hopeful picture of what it might look like to have a woman as president and how we can work at breaking the “glass ceiling.” Because often, we have one of two extremes – either feeling hopeless at the state of politics, like nothing’s ever going to change, or the opposite of that, an over-hyped optimism that we’re totally gonna see this soon, and in fact, you yourself can grow up to be president. The book says there’s definitely work to be done, but that work is something we can achieve. Collectively, we Gen Zers are pretty cynical and not optimistic about social progress. But it’s easier to get behind this.

F.A.D.: You mean, it’s easier to get behind the idea that we’re working for it, and it’ll happen someday, but we shouldn’t be overly optimistic that it’s going to happen in the next election cycle.

J.J.: Yeah, because honestly, I’m not optimistic about 2024.

F.A.D.: In 2024, Biden is going to run again, so that’s the Democratic side of things. On the other side there is one woman, former South Carolina governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. She has declared that she’s running for the Republican nomination, but the pundits don’t give her a chance against Trump, who’s certain to run, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. So we are looking at not having a woman sitting in the Oval Office for at least another several years. Is that discouraging at all to you?

Former South Carolina governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Punjab, India, declares her candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. (Toronto Star)

J.J.: I mean, it’s discouraging in that you want it to be different. You know that even if a bunch of women run, it’s not likely they’ll get all the way there. It is sometimes hard to feel discouraged. But then, it is just another man in a long line of men, so it’s really nothing new – nothing new that a woman won’t be president.

F.A.D.: Of course we say all of this, but if Joe Biden had some serious health issue tomorrow, Kamala Harris could suddenly end up as president. History has a way of doing unexpected things. But in all likelihood, it’s still going to be a while. I’m struck by what Hillary Clinton said toward the end of the book as she was talking with Ali, “I hope I see it in my lifetime.” That was Hillary’s quote, wasn’t it?

J.J.: “I’d love to see it in my lifetime. And I would love to be able to stop saying that.” [On page 318.]

F.A.D.: About that, I think it’s interesting how Ali explores both women candidates that feminists like and also really conservative women who’ve run as well. Because we’d love to see the first woman president, but some women who’ve run have policies that we personally don’t think are very pro-woman or enabling of women. What did you think of that?

J.J.: That’s not a decision I ever want to have to make, to choose between a man or … I guess I don’t want to have to say no to a woman. But I also don’t want to say yes to a woman who is going to put policies in place that will ultimately hurt people and hurt women. And I hadn’t thought about this before, but I like how Ali wrote about the difference between conservative and liberal attitudes toward politicians. I thought that was really interesting. 

F.A.D.: Go on. 

J.J.: She mentions several notable conservative women in government who have risen to prominence by being very hard-right. And she talks about how conservative voters are willing to support Black or female candidates, but only if they prove they’re loyal to conservative ideology. And often conservative ideology hurts minority groups. She also mentions how Democrats are more conscious of demographics, and how that can perpetuate barriers for women, because we’re constantly thinking about the question of electability for them.

F.A.D.: Yeah, we on the left tend to be more aware of, and inspired by, identity representation. That appeals more to us on the left because we have a lot more folks that come from marginalized backgrounds. We know what it feels like to suddenly see someone who looks like us in unexpected positions of authority or power or fame or prestige. We know that it inspires us to see the possibilities for ourselves, feeling seen and feeling like we have a role to play.

While on the 2020 campaign trail, Sen. Warren (pictured here making one of her “pinky promises”) and other women running for president often made a point of taking time to talk with girls. This conscious effort to serve as role models for them also took the form of children’s books, like those by Sen. Warren, Sen. Gillibrand, and now-Vice President Harris. (ABC News)

J.J.: It’s interesting that you say that about feeling empowered by representation. Because there are plenty of people who are minorities voting Republican. Especially for me, growing up in the age of Trump, that’s something I’ve struggled to understand.

F.A.D.: Like why would women or people of color vote for Trump when it feels to us that they’re voting for things that are going to hurt them or people like them? Of course, they don’t see it that way. But from our perspective, it’s like, why in the world would they do that? Is there internalized racism or internalized misogyny? This all makes me think of how research shows that when kids are little, both girls and boys can see themselves in politics, like as president. But as they get older, there’s a clear gap between girls and boys. Boys become substantially more likely than girls to see themselves in elected office. It has a ton to do with what role models they see. Do you feel like you notice, for yourself or your peer group, people putting themselves down because they’re girls? Or maybe they feel like they don’t belong in a particular space because they’re girls?

J.J.: It’s less internalized misogyny the way you might think of it and more just being aware of all the ways identity and demographics make it harder to aspire to certain things. 

F.A.D.: You mean, why try if it’s kinda hopeless?

J.J.: Not necessarily hopeless, but just a practical calculation. Everything is so hard to overcome, so instead of running for office, they’ll figure out how to make a difference another way. Ali says in the book, “Breaking through glass ceilings means you get cut.” [Page 30] And then later, she writes: “The ceiling will not be broken in one shot. It will be chipped away at bit by bit, shattered crack by crack.” [Page 304] It’s good to know that you can make a little change, but that also makes it hard to dream. You want to do it for the sake of social progress, like for women collectively. But if you know that it’s very likely that your dreams are not going to come to fruition – that there are so many people before you who have dreamed big dreams and who have not gotten there – it feels like you’re just throwing yourself at a wall. The book talks about the need for a tidal wave of women, all with big aspirations, but it’s so hard to be part of that wave that’s just chipping the glass ceiling. Because your own aspirations are for more. 

Annie Leibovitz’s famous 2019 photo in Vogue Magazine of five of the Democratic women running for president. Left to right, first row: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sen. Kamala Harris. Second row: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

F.A.D.: It’s like when all these women throw their hat in the ring to run for president. They believe that they’re the best person for it. But they also have to reckon with the fact that chances are high that they’re not going to be the nominee.

J.J.: Yeah, you’re probably going to help turn the public a little closer to the idea. Ali says that when Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her campaign, she said she’s grateful to everyone who shifted their minds a little on the idea of what a president can look like. But you don’t really want to be the one who sacrifices for the sake of progress. You don’t want to just make an incremental change, you want to make the change.

F.A.D.: Yeah, nobody gets into the race just to help pave the way for somebody else. It’s too big of an endeavor to run for president. It’s so consuming and takes so much out of you. To do it for the sake of all women or the sake of all Asians or all Black folks isn’t why you run. But to break any ceiling, it seems so often that there first have to be some people that try and don’t get there. In order to eventually have somebody who does get there, others have to try and fall short first. 

J.J.: I really like how Ali talks about the many women who’ve run, not just Hillary Clinton who got super, super close, but also women considered long shots. Their campaigns were still important.

F.A.D.: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm back in the 1970s, and Representative Patsy Mink. Senator Carol Moseley Braun in the early 2000s.

J.J.: All these people who I had never heard of before picking up this book. 

Hawai’i Congresswoman Patsy Mink was the first Asian American and the first woman of color elected to Congress. Serving in the House for 24 years, she also ran for president in 1972 and was one of the chief authors of Title IX legislation. I blogged about Rep. Mink previously here.

F.A.D.: That’s something from the book that challenged my thinking. I’ve long thought that we just need to work really hard to get the first woman elected president. But what Ali is saying is that we need to elect a bunch of women to all different sorts of offices. So it’s more about what long-term progress looks like.  

J.J.: That means being strategic, and it might mean voting for Biden instead of not voting at all if there’s not a woman to vote for. We talked earlier about what if it was a choice between a Democratic man and a Republican woman for president, and I don’t know how I would feel in that situation. But I would have to be okay with not voting for the woman if the man is able to walk the walk and put in place policies that bring long-lasting change. 

F.A.D.: I was wondering if Ali was going to talk about the dilemma that a lot of progressive voters feel about voting for a really conservative woman. She doesn’t, if I remember right, get into it. She seems to cover pretty evenly both women who are candidates on the left and the right, and that’s actually consistent with the whole idea of needing to have more women running for office. Yes, Michelle Bachman is so conservative that she would have turned off a lot of women who would otherwise consider voting for her when she ran for president. But that’s not the point. The point is that all types of women need to be running, even if we don’t agree with their positions, and that itself is a good thing. Really conservative women running for president, even their presence helps to chip away at the glass ceiling. 

J.J.: Like Ali says, the immediate goal is to be the first woman to get close, and then you should hope for the woman who comes second and third and fourth. A line from the book that really struck me was that it’s not just about continued progress, it’s when does it become normal? When does a woman being in office become something society is used to?

F.A.D.: I also want to touch on what Ali talks about with media coverage, like shifting the way the news media covers elections and asking more informed questions. 

Ali catches her breath in between reports and interviews. Note the microphone and oat milk latte on the left. (@alivitali Instagram)

J.J.: There’s nothing easy about taking on an institution that’s existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, that is firmly against change in many aspects, against diverse people coming in and trying to change it by pointing out the ways it hasn’t served them. It’s hard to address conscious ways we can work to undo biases.

F.A.D.: Are you talking about government, media, or both?

J.J.: All of it. Society in general.

F.A.D.: Our pillars and institutions? 

J.J.: Yeah. I think Ali writing this book helps to unravel those biases. Talking about the things that can’t get conveyed in a short time span on the news.

F.A.D.: This book is brilliant, isn’t it? It approaches multiple issues skillfully. Ali’s talking not just about elected office, but also how she and her colleagues in media can do better.

J.J.: How to do better with having diverse representation in news rooms, and in confronting biases in the way they may think and talk about these issues. I think of Ali’s anecdote about running for high school class president.

F.A.D.: The smart girls thing, right? How her senior class election was a microcosm of society and the presidential race. 

J.J.: She lost the election for class president but then got voted most likely to become president. And for me, as someone who got voted most likely to become president by my middle school class, that really struck me. Ali mentions an article by Claire Friedman in The New Yorker called “The Electable Female Candidate” which talks about all of these infuriating contradictions about what society expects from a female candidate. Society wants her to be pleased to be the president, but not ambitious enough to run. All of these elements were like Ali’s story – they wouldn’t vote for her to be class president, but they thought maybe someday, she could be the real one. You know, they loved the idea but not the reality for themselves. As a society, we’re not comfortable with the idea of female power, especially when that means a shift away from traditionally masculine ways of doing things.

F.A.D.: That all connected with you personally.

J.J.: I felt a lot of this book. I felt like I was reading something I already knew, or that I already know about, because women experience double standards and all that. But this was one of the first times I was actually able to connect the dots in terms of how that specifically related to the presidency. Like how these gendered expectations we face every day, and that we hear about other women facing – it’s not all the same, but it has so many similarities. And it manifests especially in the top echelons of government. I just liked this whole book. It was for me like puzzle pieces.

I believe that helping girls connect the dots between their experiences and those of women in politics will make for an even stronger wave that shatters the glass ceiling – not just for one woman, but for many. (Lonely Planet)

F.A.D.: Ali helped you pull together different aspects of your experience and also your knowledge and things that you’ve heard. 

J.J.: It’s cool that we get this pulled-back perspective with this book as she looks at all these campaigns, looking at the patterns, the things that it’s hard to talk about in real time.

F.A.D.: She connects it all with her own experience. It’s part analysis and part memoir.

J.J.: It’s a woman’s journey following women’s journeys. Ali’s experiences in many ways parallel the experiences of the women she’s covering. It definitely makes all the struggle very relatable. I look at the way these women are treated, and I recognize it in my own experience. Politics may be a totally different world, but these are still women, subjected to gendered expectations by society, and that’s something I think every woman can empathize with.

My daughter and I experienced Electable: Why America Hasn’t Put a Woman in the White House … Yet in several ways. We read it in a traditional book format; we also checked out a Kindle version from our library. I myself especially enjoyed the audiobook version, which is read by Ali herself, making even her acknowledgements section at the end a pretty meaningful part of the book. Without question, J.J. and I both highly, highly recommend Electable in all its versions!