Madam President?

For generations, America has favored male leaders. But the nation may finally be ready for a women in the Oval Office

May 06, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun reporter

Hillary Clinton is trying to go where no woman has gone before - to the White House.

Other women have run for the country's highest office - from Shirley Chisholm to Elizabeth Dole. But never has a woman had such a good chance first to capture her party's nomination, then to win the presidency.

So this time it could happen - the United States could have a woman president. Is the country ready for that?

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that in the 21st century, that question is even being asked.

Clinton is certainly benefitting from tremendous strides women have made in all aspects of politics over the past generation. But the fact that this barrier still exists in the United States shows that the old attitudes have not totally disappeared.

A short list of the countries that have already crossed this gender threshold, some long ago, includes Britain, India, Israel, the Philippines, Iceland, Ireland, Chile, Germany, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and Liberia. All told, there have been some 36 women chief executives in the world. A woman is in today's runoff for the presidency of France.

But the United States, the country that has long seen itself as the cutting edge of democracy, has yet to even nominate a major party candidate from among the group that represents the majority of its population.

"It's not just a president; we haven't had a woman vice president, or women as majority in either of the houses of Congress," says Robin Gerber, author of Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. "Nor have we made really great progress on any level since the so-called era of women."

How could that be?

The answer is probably a rather complicated mix of the historical, the anthropological and the political.

Historically, women were always at the bottom of the political totem pole in the United States.

"One of the things that strikes me is that in the United States, manhood was more exclusively associated with electoral politics than elswhere," says Robyn Muncy, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.

She points out that first voting rights were given to white males, then, after the Civil War, to black males. Women were the only ones excluded. That contrasts with European cultures where class and property determined voting rights. A woman of a higher class might not have had the right to vote, but she was definitely higher on the political heirarchy than a lower-class man, who also was denied the electoral franchise.

Shawn Parry-Giles, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Maryland, notes that, despite its self-image, the United States has never been on the cutting edge of this issue.

"Historically, the United States was slow to give women the right to vote. Other countries did it sooner," she says. "This country has always been a little lagging, so it is not surprising it still is.

"We consider ourselve the beacon of freedom, but our hypocrisies always get in the way of that."

Muncy notes that the argument women made first to get the vote and then to get into office now works against them.

"Women argued very effectively that they were different, more nurturing, peaceful, cooperative," she says. "It was a good argument, but it had the effect of associating women with only a portion of the political issues."

And those it did not associate women with - things like the budget, foreign policy, military leadership - are exactly the ones associated with executive positions. This might be why women have done better running for legislatures than when they seek to be the executive, whether mayor, governor or president.

There are other historical factors that take on anthropological trappings. Consider the fact that Americans have always talked about the Founding Fathers, that George Washington was always the Father of his Country.

Add to that the institutionalization of the first lady in the country's political hierarchy - something rarely the case with spouses of leaders in other countries - and you have an office that has been effectively gendered.

"If you look at a survey of what people say are the traits of a leader and you overlay them with what people think are the traits of men and women, the overlay greatly favors men," says Gerber, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. "So, for instance, to be a good leader, you are supposed to be a decision-maker. And men are considered to be good decision-makers."

Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, a group of female former heads of state, says this gap is particularly acute in the United States because the president is the commander in chief of the military, a domain always considered masculine.

"People wonder if women can handle rogue nations and be tough on terrorists," she says. "That is changing precisely because of two people, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice.

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