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Israel’s Security Fence—Back To The Wall

A Woman President in the White House?

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Home Page > Articles in English > A Woman President in the White House?


A Woman President
in the White House?

By Tekla Szymanski

"I hope [a woman president] will only become a reality when she is elected as an individual because of her capacity and the trust which the majority of the people have in her integrity and ability as a person."

— Eleanor Roosevelt, 1934

In the ABC series Commander-in-Chief, Gina Davis played Mackenzie “Mac” Allen, the first woman president of the United States. She was tough and compassionate, brainy and powerful. The blatant chauvinism of her opponents fueled her indignation and ours, and many women hailed the show as a daring breakthrough. ABC decided, after just a few runs, to take the series off the air in a move that mirrored what TV executives and advertisers, maybe even some viewers, were comfortable with (also read Bob Herbert's column, published in the New York Times on May 18, 2006 ("Hillary Can Run, But Can She Win?"), for more on that.)

Regardless, many women rather watch TV than do something in the real world to advance female leadership. The United States is in 63rd place in the world in terms of elected female representation in government — behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But somehow, more than 90 percent of Americans said they could envision a female president in 2008 according to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, and many millions enthusiastically voted for Hillary Clinton in the democratic primaries this year.

If only.

wonder woman for presidentEighty-five percent of the members of Congress are male, in the Senate — 77 percent. The number of women representatives in Congress has risen from 11.7 percent in 1997 to 16.8 percent in 2008. Not a major leap compared to the percentage of women in Rwanda, for example, which went from 17.1 percent in 1997 to 48.8 percent in 2008! But then again, the US does not offer any quotas whatsoever for women politicians. Only six of the 50 states have women governors; of the top 100 US cities, only 15 have female mayors. And according to a 2008 report by U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), only 23.8 percent of ministerial positions in the United States are held by women (read the chapter on women in politics in the world here: (http://www.unifem.org/progress/2008/media/POWW08_chap02_politics.pdf)

All that has changed slightly after the 2008 presidential election: The number of women in the House of Representatives reached a record high of 74, or 16%; still short of the 20% considered minimal to exert any voting-bloc pressure. "We have to do a great deal more if we're going to reach parity in government", says Marie C. Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project. The majority of women representatives are Democrats, according to Susan Carroll, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

One might argue that on some level, mainly in the business world, we're making progress; but in fact over the past five years, women’s representation has stayed constant. Yes, there were (and are) strong women in politics and beyond in America. But so far, a female intern and her stained dress have triggered the most buzz in the White House.

What a contrast with where I grew up. Europeans didn’t need a TV show to get their act together. Germany’s last government was 43.6 percent female, and the country just elected a female chancellor. Since 1988, no Norwegian government has been formed with less than 40 percent women. In 1999, Sweden had more female ministers than male, and conservative Spain has eight women and nine men running its government. In contrast, the Bush Administration has a sad showing of three women versus 17 men.

On Commander-in-Chief, the First Husband (a ”wuss” in the eyes of his son) had to decide whether he wanted to accept a job outside the White House. He felt undervalued and under appreciated. No law denies the spouse of a president a career outside the White House. Who knew?

Yet in reality, half of the American public believes it inappropriate for a First Lady to hold a paying job outside the White House, while two-thirds think that it would be acceptable for a President’s husband to do the same (according to a USAToday/MacNeil-Lehrer Productions/Gallup Poll conducted in 2004.)

What does that say about Americans and how they see women leadership? American women are different from European women, because they have become complacent. They take their rights and opportunities for granted without aggressively debating the larger issues that affect them.

American women may think of themselves as progressive feminists, but in truth, they, compared to their European sisters, are mostly followers — not leaders.

In Europe, politicians’ spouses continue with their professional lives because they were not elected into office, and no one cares what they do. No loud howl is heard when a woman is elected into higher office in Europe — not even a proud collective self-congratulating shoulder slapping.

To be sure, European women haven’t broken every gender barrier — especially not the glass ceilings in the corporate world and in business.

But behind their self-imposed veil of feel-good feminism, American women should take a cue from Europe and demand real representation in politics.

“The one thing I do not want to be called is ‘First Lady’,” Jacqueline Kennedy once said. “It sounds like a saddle horse.”

Read my blog-entry on a related subject, Hillary Clinton's primary race for the presidential nomination, here. The blog is featured on the New York Women in Communications Web site, www.nywici.org.


For further reading:

American Women Presidents

Equal Voices — Electing Women

The White House Project - a nonprofit organization for advancing women's leadership

NOW - National Organization for Women

Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership:
Woman Ministers and Woman heads of Government

University of Maryland's Women's Studies Database


International Women's Democracy Center

Women World Leaders

Women Rulers and Leaders

The Wall Street Journal's Special Section:
"Women to Watch"

The Women's Media Center

National Women's Political Caucus

EMILY's List

Feminism Resources

A Student's Guide to Women's Suffrage

Home Page > Articles in English > A Woman President in the White House?