Someday, a Woman Will Be President

According to the Constitution of the United States of America, there are only three requirements you must meet to be eligible for the presidency. You must be a natural born citizen. You must be at least 35 years old. And you must have been living in the US for at least the last 14 years.Nowhere in the Constitution does it say you must have a Y chromosome or a penis. But not only have each of our 42 presidents been male, every major party candidate for president has been male. Every four years, male candidates come and go, and no one seems to question the fact that a woman's role in the White House has always been as a quiet, supportive spouse rather than as a leader. The few women who have challenged this notion have been treated as anomalies, phenomena, flukes. Despite all the equality this country claims to have achieved, it still lags behind such other countries as England, the Philippines, Pakistan, India, Norway, Lithuania, Nicaragua, even Sri Lanka--countries that have all been led by women.Where is our female president?WOMEN REALLY DO WINIn a 1970 Time magazine article titled "Why we need a woman president in 1976," Gloria Steinem wrote that having a female president within six years was an optimistic goal, but "surely, a woman in the White House is not an impossible feminist cause. It's only a small step in the humanist revolution."Well, it's the '90s, and electing a woman to become president in the near future still seems to be an optimistic goal. Last fall, a Florida Wal-Mart pulled a T-shirt from its racks, because the message printed on it -- "Someday, a woman will be president"--reportedly offended customers' family values. So much for a humanist revolution.Even though women have gained more clout and experience in the world of politics, political analysts and party players have dismissed the idea of a female presidential candidate by saying that voters "just aren't ready." Ready for what? What is it about a female candidate running for president that necessitates preparation?Party leaders' excuse that voters aren't ready for female candidates is just a smoke screen. According to Perception and Reality, a study released by the National Women's Political Caucus in 1994, when women run for office, they win as often as men do. The report studied success rates of male and female candidates in general elections for state senate, state house, US House, US Senate and governor from 1986 to 1992 and found that "success rates for male and female candidates were virtually identical at every level of office." The study also explained the successes that resulted in 1992 being dubbed the political "Year of the Woman." It wasn't that female candidates as a whole were necessarily more successful that year, but simply that more female candidates ran. The number of women who ran for open seats in the US House jumped from about 10 in 1990 to 39 in 1992, and that increase was clearly reflected in the number of women in the House in 1992, which rose from 29 to 48. But women still make up only 10 percent of the House membership, and seven percent in the Senate.The main reason there are so few women in public office, according to Perception and Reality , "is not that women don't win elections, but that so few women run."Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, explained that 1996 could be a watershed year for women in Congress. A record number of women are running for the US House this year -- more than 193."That is really a phenomenal achievement," Perez Ferguson said. "What it means is that given that number plus the number of women who are already serving, we just have a lot of people who will be prepared and ready [to run for president]. The public gets more prepared for that type of change as they see more women in leadership at those other levels."SHE COULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDERTake it from someone who's been there.Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder considered running for the presidency in 1988, and her exploratory campaign made inroads for future female presidential candidates by breaking new ground."We always say 'Leader of the Free World,' 'Commander in Chief,' -- those things all kind of run together, and we have never seen a woman secretary of state, or secretary of defense," she said, "so I think people are very nervous about women in that role. They're nervous enough in many parts of the country about [women] even being in Congress or the Senate. There's lots of parts of the country that haven't even elected anybody to Congress yet, so why would they jump and suddenly be excited about a woman running for president?"Perez Ferguson said that voters' reactions to a female presidential candidate would vary. "Well, the first reaction will be interest. There is always a lot of interest created around women candidates -- certainly there would be for a candidate for the highest office in the land. That interest then translates into either enthusiasm or derision, depending on how the candidate comes across to the voters. And in some cases it comes across in both ways, depending on which voters we're talking about. It would really stir things up is the easiest way to say it."As more women move into the upper echelons of political power, there is more of a chance that a woman will run for president. "The way that one does get poised to enter a presidential race is by moving up through the ranks and becoming known through their service at other locations," Perez Ferguson said.One example of a woman whose experience and track record make her a suitable presidential candidate is Senator Barbara Mikulski, a second-term Democrat from Maryland. In Mikulski's 25-year political career, she has served in both the House and the Senate. In the Senate, she has become the first woman to serve on the Senate Ethics Committee. Mikulski was also rumored to be on Bill Clinton's list of possible running mates in 1992. Some have said that her combative attitude kept her from the nomination, but the senator's aides explained that she was already firmly committed to running for the Senate at the time. That same year, Mikulski beat current presidential candidate Alan Keyes with 71 percent of the vote.There is one Republican woman campaigning for the presidency this year--but she's campaigning for her husband. Elizabeth Dole could be running her own campaign. Her long-running political career began in the Johnson administration and included serving as Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor before she left her posts to help her husband campaign for president. When coupled with her charm and energy, Elizabeth Dole's experience makes her as viable a candidate as many of the men who are running against her husband.She has her husband's endorsement. Senate majority leader Bob Dole told McCall's magazine in 1990 that he was ready to be First Husband in 1996. Dole's supporters have recognized Elizabeth "Liddy" Dole's potential: Campaign signs posted at a recent campaign stop read "Bob and Liddy in 96," but Dole ended his speech that day by saying he wanted to be president because, "I think Elizabeth would make a great First Lady."LOOKING PRESIDENTIALNew York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to challenge the notion that only men could be presidents when she made what she called a "symbolic" campaign for the presidency in 1972. At the Democratic National Convention that year, she conceded, "As a black person and a female person, I do not actually have a chance of gaining office in this election year."When Geraldine Ferraro was picked as Democrat Walter Mondale's running mate 12 years later, she was questioned more often about her shoe size than her views on policy making. But her candidacy opened minds to the idea that women could be presidents, too.But it was Schroeder's 1987 exploratory campaign that has best demonstrated the implications of a female presidential candidate."When I was looking at running for president," Schroeder said, "people used to say, 'I am so bored with all the candidates out there. They look the same, they dress the same, they talk the same.' Then they go right on and say, 'And you don't look presidential' without realizing they've just said two absolutely contradictory things. And what they're saying is that nobody who has been president looks like me. That's true. So does that keep us from ever voting for somebody who looks like a woman and is a woman?"While Schroeder's campaign was an exciting possibility for many supporters, it got started too late to organize effectively on the national level. She decided against a full-fledged campaign, not because America wasn't ready for a female presidential candidate but because her campaign wasn't ready. She was also discouraged by the dehumanizing nature of presidential campaigns.Schroeder, who has never lost an election, is known for sponsoring the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take leave from their jobs to care for children or sick family members. As an advocate for women's equality and reproductive rights, Schroeder serves as a mentor to many Democratic women in the House. She also worked to win pension benefits for military survivors and lifted bans on women in combat.At the time of Schroeder's exploratory candidacy, the eight-term Congresswoman had served in Congress longer than all candidates except Delaware Senator Joe Biden and had more name recognition than many of this year's presidential candidates. But her experience was overshadowed by the issue of her gender. Pundits and reporters accused her of exploiting her gender, and she was often asked why she was running "as a woman." "Do I have a choice?" she replied.Schroeder's announcement that she had decided not to run was an intense disappointment for many of her supporters, and Schroeder has said that she suddenly felt as if she'd let a lot of people down. That feeling led to tears and those tears led to criticism that she was unpresidential, but at the time, Schroeder argued "tears signify compassion, not weakness."Schroeder's decision not to run left many supporters disappointed, but her consideration allowed a brief glimpse into what would happen if a woman did run for president. She raised awareness of the idea that women can indeed run for president and demonstrated that there is interest in a female presidential candidate--despite what the pundits say.The chances that Schroeder would ever consider running again are slim. She announced in November that she is leaving Congress for a life outside of politics, and it sounds as if her foray onto the presidential campaign battleground has left her with a few scars. But she fully supports other women running for president."It is difficult, and that's not to say we shouldn't do it for heaven's sake," Schroeder said. "It's been much too slow--we really need to speed it up a bit. But you can't do it without some women going out and putting their necks out. It doesn't happen without that so we've got to get some women out there doing it and we're having trouble getting them to put their necks out even for Congress."DON'T COUNT THEM OUT YETAmerican voters can't vote a woman into the Oval Office until one runs. Yet there are other ways that women are participating in this year's presidential election. The possibility of a female vice presidential candidate remains."We came very near to having a vice presidential candidate under heavy consideration for the Republican party this year in the sitting [New Jersey] Governor Christine Todd Whitman," Ferguson said. "Governor Whitman is one of those people who combines very prudent financial philosophy along with some very good social policies and could be a very good running mate for a person in the future," she said.But the best way for women's voices to be heard in this election is through voting."When women are represented heavily among the voters, then their perspectives and views are discussed by the candidates and the public policy that is then generated by the winner helps to reflect their views. If women hang back and don't get involved, then their views in public policy tends to go against them," Perez Ferguson said.She said that women's views will also be represented in this campaign by watching for women as leaders in the campaigns of the men who are running for the presidency. "If you begin to see that not only is it a male candidate but also that he is completely surrounded by men in his campaign, then you really wonder whether that perspective is going to be broad enough to serve all the people," she explained.Perez Ferguson is optimistic about the chances of a female presidential candidate in four years. "We're building a group of women right now who could easily move into that position in the not-too-distant future," she said.In fact, there are many women who are currently in position to run for the presidency in four years. Among the women Perez Ferguson mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2000 were Democratic Attorney General Janet Reno, Republican Representative Constance Morella of Maryland and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who "has a good, balanced perspective and could be a real enhancement on a ticket."Schroeder was less optimistic, saying that the outlook for 2000 is "not too good," but that doesn't mean there is no hope. "I think it means that women are going to have to get real serious," she said. "Last year we celebrated women having had the vote for 75 years. And I think women are going to have to get really serious about whether we are going to use the vote. Are we going to really participate, are we going to do what our foremothers hoped? I think we haven't quite made that decision yet. I would like to say we have, but it's a little hard to say."Maybe all the country needs are a few good women to come forward and run.


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