Finding Madam President

Postcard from New York

NEW YORK—Within the next eight years, leading media pundits expect Al Gore ’69, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Sen. John Edwards, Rep. Tom DeLay, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Sen. John F. Kerry and Rep. Dick Armey to run for the presidency. Almost nowhere within the national public arena does the name of a female presidential hopeful receive mention. To my pleasant surprise, the White House Project (WHP), an organization dedicated to fostering women’s leadership, is working to change that—and fast.

“We will see a woman run for president by 2008, if not sooner,” said Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, at a WHP-sponsored panel discussion.

Hearing Ferraro’s passionate speech on the first day of my internship really challenged my views about women in politics. How do I reconcile her firm belief in the idea of a female president before the end of the decade with the fact that American women today remain largely underrepresented not only on the presidential level but in the national government as a whole?

Women, who account for 52 percent of this country’s population, have not achieved the true political equality dreamt by our feminist pioneers. Of more than 12,000 members of Congress since our nation’s founding, only about 2 percent, or 215, have been women. All of America’s 43 presidents and 46 vice presidents have been men. The discrepancy of power between men and women only increases when comparing the U.S. to many other parts of the world. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the U.S. ranks 55th globally in terms of women’s membership in the lower house of the legislature—a ranking it shares with the Slovak Republic, a struggling new Eastern European country.

These statistics should startle and disgust a country that takes pride in its commitment to equality between the sexes. My interactions at the WHP with several leading political thinkers forced me to wonder why women are still held back. Why don’t we have gender parity on Capitol Hill? But most importantly, why have we not had a female contender in the running for the presidency, let alone the vice-presidency, in nearly 20 years?

Bob Carpenter, a panel speaker who worked with Elizabeth Dole in her failed bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, simply answers that the rules are different for women candidates than they are for men. Eleanor Clift, whose book Madam President examines the barriers to women’s executive leadership, agreed that the standards are drastically different for women, but she added, “women should not have to apologize for wanting a seat at the table” considering they make up half of the population and vote in greater numbers than men.

Regrettably, despite whatever equality should exist, women still must prove themselves to the American public more than their male counterparts solely because of their gender. While a Gallop poll indicated that the number of Americans who said they would vote for a qualified woman president rose from 30 percent in 1945 to over 90 percent in 1999, 51 percent of those asked still believed a man would do a better job than a woman when it came to leading the nation during a crisis, underlining the belief that women lack credibility as commanders-in-chief precisely because they are women.

This perception is especially problematic because reality refutes it. While many know that Lieberman and Sen. John S. McCain are national security experts based on their experiences as members of several Senate committees, including the Armed Services committee, few know that Sen. Mary Landrieu serves as the chair of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee or that Rep. Nancy Pelosi is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

The WHP has found that the media only exacerbates this problem further through its portrayal, or rather its lack of portrayal, of female politicians on Sunday morning political shows where aspiring government leaders have the unique opportunity to convey their competence and importance. In a recent study, the WHP analyzed 18 months of programming by five programs from “Face the Nation” to “Meet the Press,” and found that only 10 percent of the total guests were women. And when looking at repeat appearances, female guests’ appearances dropped to 6 percent. How can women become leaders on the national stage if they are locked out of the very venues that can bring them there?

The lack of favorable media attention only contributes to what is probably the largest setback for a woman to become president: the very fact that no woman has ever been president. There is no political role model for women to emulate. In 2000, although Elizabeth Dole’s presidential run was short-lived, it inspired a new generation of female leaders. The outpouring of female support for Dole underscores the desire for images of women in executive positions. For instance, Iceland’s Vigdic Finnbogadottir said that after she had been president for eight years, she realized that she helped change the perception of her office when there were children in her country who thought that only a woman could be president.

While the majority of American women work outside the home in all professions, the public still struggles with the idea of a female president. These attitudes have to change in a post-Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice political horizon. People need to recognize female politicians for their qualifications and not for their gender. Our nation’s failure to do so deprives it of female decision and policy-making abilities.

At the 1984 Democratic convention, then vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro stood before an audience half-filled with women, many of them crying, to accept her nomination. She wore a pastel pink suit, as if to say, “Get used to it—this is the new color of power.”

Anat Maytal ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Currier House. This summer, she is preparing her bid for the 2028 presidential election.