Madame President

ANNA QUINDLEN

April 21, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

DONNA KARAN, the only fashion designer who seems to recognize the existence of hips in her clientele, perhaps because she owns a pair herself, recently ran an arresting series of magazine advertisements.

In one, the woman in the pin-striped suit is standing behind a bunting-draped lectern. In another, she is sitting on the back of a convertible amid grim guys with headsets, confetti dappling her hair.

In a third, she is raising her right hand, a handsome man at her side, while a judge holds the Bible. Congratulations, Ms. President.

The model looks scarcely old enough to meet the constitutional requirements and too decollete to meet the public ones. She's accepting the tribute of a grateful nation with a black-lace bra peeking from her unbuttoned blouse, fashion's current Madonna/whore obsession.

The slogan is "In Women We Trust," but there's something slightly camp about the whole thing.

Camp is how the nation still sees it as well.

You've got to wonder, approaching a new century, when America will begin to take seriously the idea of being led by a woman. The concept heretofore has always been presented as a cross between a futuristic fantasy and a sitcom premise. Cue the laugh track.

We've heard the rationales. We've heard that there are not enough terrific women in the pipeline, that with so few in the House and the Senate it is inevitable that most of the major players are men.

There are about to be two problems with the pipeline excuse.

One is that a record number of women are running for seats in Congress this year. The second is the dirty little secret that has suddenly become so apparent: There are not that many terrific men in the pipeline, either.

In a recently published study called "Women in Power," two psychologists talked to 25 of the country's most powerful female elected officials.

They found that many of them did not run for office until after their families were well launched, foreclosing the Wunderkind status and power-base building that accrue to men like Bill Clinton or Al Gore.

They found that many of them were gingerly negotiating the contradictions between traditional notions of leadership and traditional notions of femininity.

But many had been told from childhood that they could do anything, and they still believed it. Given the chance, maybe they could convince us, too.

Consider Ann Richards, who became famous for her convention speech about how good ol' George Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth -- and who, God bless her, has no dirty linen left unaired after a snake's belly of a gubernatorial challenge.

Governor of Texas, a biiiig important state. Smart, can-do, and as charming as a full moon on an autumn night. Truth is that if Richards is not soon mentioned as a national candidate, it won't be because of her competence. It will be because of her chromosomes.

I've heard women wonder aloud about when the idea of a woman president will be something more than an occasion for gags about the First Man. Opportunities for women have expanded so much that those gender deserts in which change is scarce water have become more wrenching.

This month the American Catholic bishops released another draft of their pastoral letter on women's concerns. It begins well, calling sexism a sin, and then ends, sadly, with the church's continuing theology of exclusion, its reaffirmation of the priesthood as the exclusive preserve of men.

"This constant practice constitutes a tradition which witnesses to the mind of Christ and is therefore normative," the letter reads.

I could inveigh here against the sheer foolishness of any system that excludes at least half of its finest potential leaders.

But the murmurings about a woman president (as well as women priests) are not only about expanding what seems to be a shockingly shallow applicant pool.

They are questions about how we as women are valued, and how we learn to value ourselves. Neither political nor church leaders seem to adequately appreciate that a system which, by custom or covert agreement, considers women unsuitable for its highest positions sends them a message: You are subordinate clauses in the world's history.

No rationale can obscure that message. When our daughters ask why they may never see a woman president or a woman priest, we have no good answers for them. That is because there are none.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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