Scandal aside, time for first woman president

September 28, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- On the door to my office, I have a poster of a classic "Wonder Woman" comic that dates back to 1943. On it, the star-spangled gal in full regalia -- lasso, wristlets and all -- is standing in the center ring of a national political convention.

Screaming across the poster is this pronouncement: "WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT -- A Thousand Years in the Future!"

Well, today no one thinks we'll have to wait until 2943 to get a woman in the White House. But we still seem to think that the first female president must be a Wonder Woman.

This is part of what Marie Wilson thinks of as the scarcity mentality. It's the lingering notion that we never get more than one woman candidate and "she has to be perfect: feminine but masculine, aggressive but gentle." You know the drill.

White House project

Ms. Wilson, who made Take Our Daughters to Work Day a national event, is the driving force behind White House Project, a nonpartisan group with the goal of electing a woman president in 10 years -- roughly the same amount of time it took America to get a man on the moon.

Until now the basic strategy to get a woman on the, um, presidential launching pad has been to fill the lower elective offices with so many women that one would inevitably be shot up into the national stratosphere. But they seem to go in one end of the pipeline and out the other, without achieving liftoff.

Now the folks at The White House Project are trying to break through the scarcity mentality. They are joining the class known in politics as "the great mentioners." These are the mysterious forces that "mention" people who then get talked about, considered seriously, and sometimes even run.

With the aid of a brain trust and focus groups, they have compiled and winnowed down a list of 20 women. They are putting ballots out in magazines, and on the Internet (www.thewhitehouseproject.org).

Among the 20 women on the list are the well-known: There's one governor, Christine Whitman, and four senators, Dianne Feinstein, Olympia Snowe, Kay Hutchison and Mary Landrieu. There are others who are less well known.

A matter of timing

Of course, in some ways, the timing of the Ballot Box Initiative seems a bit off. Who wants to put a woman in the White House when the one already there is having a pretty rotten time? Indeed, Hillary Clinton is on the ballot as is Elizabeth Dole, though I imagine the first lady would rather get out of the East Wing than move to the West Wing.

Then too, being president today sounds like another cleaning job. Ms. Wilson acknowledges, "This is not exactly the climate we expected when we started this." She says, "I don't want it to be seen as a movement to get a woman in because she'll be moral." The question isn't whether she can be trusted with an intern, but with the country.

Nevertheless, when you get beyond one sex scandal, Ms. Wilson believes, "Women do bring private concerns into the public arena. How do children and the elderly get taken care of, how can work and family get dealt with, the whole business of equity? What can we bring to the table?"

These 20 names are just an opening gambit, a mind-opening gambit. No one asked these women if they would run. Nor is this an endorsement. The Ballot Box Initiative is rather the beginning of what Ms. Wilson describes as "national conversation about what your ballot looks like."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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