Lingering sexism impedes women's path to highest level of power

January 08, 2007|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- America has an odd relationship with gender equality. While other nations have already placed women in the equivalent of the Oval Office, this country has just gotten around to putting a woman at the helm of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi is the first female speaker of the House in U.S. history.

In that role, the California Democrat stands second in the line of succession; she would become president if both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney died or were incapacitated. (Condoleezza Rice, the second woman to hold the post of secretary of state, is fourth in line, behind U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and Senate president pro tempore.)

If Hillary Rodham Clinton runs for president - as seems likely - she would become the first woman to make a serious run for the presidency, backed by formidable political machinery and a solid fundraising capacity. Yet it is quite a stretch to believe she could win, not only because she is widely viewed as a polarizing figure - easily caricatured as a loopy liberal by right-wing propagandists - but also because she is, well, a woman.

Yes, the women's movement ushered women into corporate boardrooms as well as into carpenters' unions. NASA has put female astronauts in space, and the confused battle lines of the Iraqi war have propelled women into combat. More than 70 servicewomen have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, surpassing the total from Korea, Vietnam and the first Persian Gulf war.

It's also true that the United States may have gone further than any other country to protect women's right to equal treatment in the workplace. Laws against sexual harassment and discrimination are broad and reasonably effective. Further, this country has advanced the cause of justice for rape victims.

Still, Americans, men and women alike, bring a lingering sexism to their decisions about seats of power, from the pulpit to the presidency. Just last year, the first woman, Katie Couric, was named as solo anchor of an evening news broadcast on a major network, CBS. That serves as a reminder of how long it took a major network to take the risk that viewers would accept a woman as a voice of authority, even if she were just reading from a teleprompter.

If the U.S. Senate and state governorships are steppingstones to the Oval Office, American women are at least gaining training ground. There are 16 women in the Senate and nine female governors.

But the presidency? In a time of terrorist threats? American voters struggle with the notion that a woman can be tough enough to be a general or a spymaster. They'd be reluctant to elect a woman as commander in chief. (Ms. Rice might pass the steel-toed-pumps test, but she would have to overcome a residual racism.)

Israel, a small nation under constant threat from its neighbors, showed no such reluctance to place Golda Meir at the head of its government. She was prime minister from 1969 to 1974. In the movie Munich, she is depicted as the tough-minded leader who sends Israeli agents to assassinate terrorists believed to be connected to the murders of 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer during the 1972 Olympic Games.

Americans can barely fathom the concept of so-called honor killings, where women are killed, often by male relatives, for having sex outside marriage or even for being raped. Those murders - justified by relatives who claim the woman has besmirched the family "honor" - are still far too common in many developing countries, including Pakistan. Yet Pakistan has had a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who served two terms, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996.

Then there was Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly regarded as a pushover during her tenure as prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mrs. Thatcher counseled then-President George H. W. Bush to be aggressive, issuing her famous advice: "Now is no time to go wobbly, George."

Surely, these United States will not wait much longer to join the host of nations that have placed women at the helm.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton will be the first after all. But if she isn't, I'm betting the first female president will be elected in her (and my) lifetime.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

Columnist Steve Chapman is on vacation.

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