The Constitution and the ultimate glass ceiling

My older daughter is in eighth grade. By law here in Illinois, she must pass a Constitution test in order to graduate next spring. And the test is tomorrow, so we spent the weekend preparing her to take the test.

I remember noticing something about the Constitution when I was a teacher myself, which is now more than a decade ago. I didn’t think much about it then, but it sure struck me today, as we were going over the various articles and clauses. And it’s something that should have been pointed out and taken care of a long time ago.

Article II of the Constitution concerns the Executive branch of the government. It’s the one that spells out what the powers and duties of the President are. Looking at the actual text of the document reveals some interesting things:

  • Section 1, Clause 1 says, when referring to the President, that “He shall hold his term during the term of four years…”
  • Section 1, Clause 7 states that “The President shall. . . receive for his services a compensation. . .”
  • Section 1, Clause 8 states that “Before he shall enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation. . .”

Notice a pattern in these instances? I sure did. It appears that, on its face, the Constitution does not allow for the possibility of a woman to become President, since “he” means a man, and “she” means a woman, and “his” refers to a man, and “hers” is refers to a woman. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of how English works can tell you this.

So why does the U.S. Constitution refer to the President as “he”? It seems pretty obvious to me that in 1787, when the Constitution was written down, nobody could imagine how a woman could ever be President. Women could not vote back then, and they had few, if any, legal rights of their own. So Jefferson and Madison and the others went about their business, secure in the idea that women would never be considered to be their equals.

But so much has changed over the centuries. Women can vote, and they do. They even vote more often than men do. They have served in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and at all levels of government, except one. And unless the Constitution is changed, an argument could be made–presumably with a straight face–that a woman cannot hold the Presidency.

I hear many references to the idea of “Originalism,” which says that the Constitution must be understood as the framers of the Constitution itself intended it to be. That’s a loser for the idea of gender-neutral language, since Jefferson and the others probably could never conceive of a world where women were voting, let alone holding political office. So leaving it up to anyone who subscribes to this theory (and I’m sure that some on the Supreme Court do) won’t help.

I’m not suggesting this for the benefit of Hillary Clinton, or any other woman who wants to be the President someday. I’m doing it for my daughters, and everyone else’s daughter, to show them that a woman can do anything she wants to in the professional and political realm. No language construction from the 18th century should stand in the way of this, either.

Amending the Constitution is both exceedingly difficult and exceedingly rare. Some states have already taken this step with their own constitution, as well. But the President is the leader of all Americans. It’s about time to allow for the possibility that he or she can come from all Americans, as well.

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