What do you think it will take to elect a woman president?
Do you think America is ready for a woman president?
I research and write about women and the United States presidency and I get those questions a lot. They both imply that there is something we need to “do” to prepare for the coming of a woman president. First, it is worth noting that countries around the globe have elected women heads of state and prime ministers. Currently twenty-one countries have women leaders. But America has yet to elect a woman president, I believe for two primary reasons:
1. We hold limiting stereotypes about the range of women’s possibilities; in particular, we impose a constant measure of her sexual worth, regardless of her intellect, goals, and passion.
2. Deep down, many of us, even those who say we would support a woman president can’t quite make that commitment in the voting booth.
Let’s talk about stereotypes –
Has someone ever heard you mention what you do for a living and comment that you don’t look like a person who has that job?
A stereotype is a framework within which someone is expected to operate. It creates a range of expectations about intelligence, competence, and behavior.
We expect police officers to enjoy a donut every now and then. We expect our trainer to look better than we do.
The range of expectations gets really problematic when it limits who someone is and who they see themselves as capable of becoming.
When the scope of who a woman can be is confined only to what has come before her, this is a problem.
If she can’t look like what she wants to be–if what she wants to be has never been imagined to be someone like her, she has to navigate new waters to get there.
In 1988, Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who got into the race for the US presidency kept hearing “you don’t look like the president.” Well, I guess not.
Hillary Clinton who almost won the democratic nomination in 2008– got closer to the US presidency than any woman ever. Much has been written about her image. Famously, she adopted a pant suit look. This led observers to speculate that she wanted to “masculinize” her appearance to look more like a man (or the model of the United States presidency) maybe that’s true, or maybe she just liked wearing pant suits.
She was interviewed by Barbara Walters who asked her ‘a very personal question’– no, not about whether or not she will be running for president in 2016, but instead about how she styles her hair.
Shirley Chisholm, 1972 presidential candidate, said “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’”
And Hillary Clinton isn’t the first –but we can make her the last—woman to receive misogynistic treatment in the press. Elizabeth Dole, Barbara Mikulski, Sarah Palin, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Michele Bachmann and others have, too. These women have found the spotlight for doing big things–even running for president. And yet, time and again, the focus is on their image often instead of their message.
Some research suggests that the more women we have in the pipeline, known as –gendered pipeline research– the better the chance of electing a woman president. Yet, if we sexually stereotype these women in the media, what difference will more numbers mean except to give the late night comedians and pundits more material?
And here is the second factor that has made the election of a woman in the United States difficult:
According to a 2008 study in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, Public opinion
polls show consistently that a substantial portion of the American public would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate. Because of the controversial nature of such questions, however, the responses may suffer from social desirability effects. In other words, respondents may be purposely giving false answers so as not to violate societal norms. In other words, they may have lied. Using an unobtrusive measure called the “list experiment,” researchers have found that public opinion polls are indeed exaggerating support for a female president. Roughly 26 percent of the public is “angry or upset” about the prospect of a female president. Moreover, this level of dissatisfaction is constant across several demographic groups. Therefore, no matter what she does to her image, it won’t make a difference.
But it’s 2013. Are things changing for the better?
A couple of years ago a young female student came to speak to me about my research. She was bright and curious. She was, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, “leaning in.” As she left our meeting she looked at me warmly and said, “I give you a lot of credit for your work, but I just don’t think that we are ever going to have a woman president – at least not in my lifetime.”
My heart sank! I thought – are you kidding me? You and all the young, bright college educated women like you are potential future women presidents. I wondered if, like the poll in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, other young women had the same negative feelings about a woman president. So I conducted a poll of more than 500 college age women and I asked them if the bids of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in 2008 encouraged them to think that a woman would become president in their lifetime. Well over half – in fact almost 350 of the women polled said YES, they are encouraged by women running for president. It makes them feel like they can do it, too. That’s almost 90 percent–
And here is more good news:
We elected Barack Obama president because we imagined that he could be president. An unprecedented number of new voters and volunteers were caught up in imagining Barack Obama as president. He may not have looked like any president we ever had but we chose him to lead us.
And consider this: and African-American man and a woman were the final two nominees for the democratic ticket. We were engaged in powerful imagination.
So what will it take to elect a woman president?
We need to continue to call out sexist stereotyping in the press – by alerting Web Sites like the Name It Change It Campaign from Women’s Media Center and we need to write the editors and producers of media that mistreats women. Let’s tell them we won’t read their newspapers or magazines and we won’t watch their TV stations or listen to their radio shows until they treat women like complete human beings, not sexual objects considered first by how they look, and covering their beliefs and vision only an afterthought.
When will America be ready for a woman president?
When we understand what’s been going on, recognize our own prejudices, and when we say that we will vote for a qualified female candidate and then actually cast our vote for her. When we overcome the sexual stereotyping and not just say we will vote for a woman, but actually vote for her, the United States will, indeed prepare for the ‘coming’ of a woman president.