(WOMENSENEWS)–To most of us, it is the last day of a long weekend, but President’s Day is supposed to mean much more. After all, it is dedicated to a pair of beloved patriarchs: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
I think, though, we should forget the distant past and ask ourselves why, in more than 200 years, we have yet to put a woman in the White House.
I see five reasons why it hasn’t happened, and one great reason why we’ll have a woman president soon.
1. Change is VERY slow
In a letter in 1776, Abigail Adams threatened John (her husband and our second president) with a women’s revolt.
"We have it in our power not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet," she wrote.
John replied with only half his tongue in his cheek that men knew better than to give up privilege.
Thus was set our current pace for change, with nearly 150 years between Abigail’s challenge and the women’s vote.
In the 80 years we’ve been casting the ballot, it rarely occurred to us to elevate ourselves. Today, the mostly male leaders in Congress are more interested in exporting democracy than practicing it. Afghanistan and Iraq are mandated to have 25 percent women in political leadership, almost double our own. And so, with few electoral exceptions, we live out John Adams’s jibe and Abigail’s worst nightmare.
2. We Already Have Jobs: Wife and Mother
Women may run a few Fortune 500 companies (and I mean a few), but the cultural ideal for the American woman hasn’t changed.
We are a nation deeply afraid that if women climb up the professional ladder, they will ascend from home, authoring a life at odds with our maternal mandate.
Interestingly, the "good-wife-and-mother" expectation of women ties closely to the explosive issue of abortion. All the objections currently being raised do not just have to do with the "sanctity of life." If this country cared so much about babies, it would institute supports–such as parental leave and workplace child care–so both parents could care for them. But we don’t. Why? So we can all keep women in their place.
In her book "Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood" Kristen Luker raised the idea that battles over reproduction are fuelled by the unaddressed fear that women’s biology will no longer be our destiny and we will abandon our traditional roles. That book was written 20 years ago, but the pace of change is slow enough to keep her argument relevant today.
3. The Anti-Man Problem
Women do not often support the aspirations of other women, fearing they’ll be tagged as "against men" if they’re "for women."
But the fact is to be for women also means to be for men.
When we allow women to assume different roles, to carry the mantle of authority alongside men, everyone benefits.
A great example of this is how women’s refusal to "cowboy up" changed the lives of our nation’s soldiers.
When women joined the Army, as General Claudia Kennedy says, they were issued the same lousy regulation boots that had always been worn. The women complained; they said they could barely walk in the boots. As a result, the footwear changed, and male soldiers finally spoke of suffering in crippled silence.
This fashion change, and so many opportunities, have been brought to the world by feminism.
4. It’s the Culture, Stupid
You can’t be what you can’t see, and we don’t see female presidents in popular culture.
Scores of men have played the president, but the lone female representation on the silver screen is the 1964 comedy, "Kisses for My President," starring Polly Bergen, who is overwhelmed by the job and happily resigns when she becomes pregnant. Other than "Air Force One" and "The Contender"–movies in which strong women play the vice president–we have no role models.
There is no over-estimating the power of popular culture. Exhibit A of this is Dennis Haysbert, who plays an African American president in the television series "24." When Haysbert testified at a congressional hearing on Hollywood’s portrayal of Washington, everyone from limo drivers to Secret Service agents called him "Mr. President." He has even been asked to run for office. As he says, his role "has, first and foremost, put it in people’s minds that it is possible" for a black man to be president.
Now it’s women’s turn.
5. Fear of Softness
We aren’t sure women are "tough enough" to keep us safe.
Remember when Geraldine Ferraro, Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984, was asked if she would have the nerve to push the nuclear button? Would they ever ask it of a man?
There are striking examples of women–former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher–who managed their countries powerfully in wartime.
But if the world had been otherwise–if they weren’t lone women among powerful men–would they have made different choices? In the play "Golda’s Balcony," about the life of Meier, the leader sadly reminisces that she came to Israel to build a great society and found herself "in the business of munitions."
Women aren’t the only ones who suffer from unfair labels. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a hero of the Vietnam War, was successfully branded a "girlie man" among draft-dodging opponents. It didn’t do him any good.
But There’s Hope!
A woman will be president. Why? Because we’re expert cleaners and the world is a mess.
Women often get to run companies and countries when they are messed up and no man wants to be tagged with the cleanup. Take Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy as a great example.
That’s why we will have a woman as president in my lifetime.
The world has been brought to its knees by unnecessary military wars abroad and unnecessary culture wars at home, by a record deficit, by grave environmental issues, by the newfound poverty of our middle class, by ignoring the basis for true security around the world (not bombs; jobs and food and housing and education).
Yet, we have a plentiful natural resource that we have not mined to help fix the problems: women, and specifically a female president.
For such trying times we need everyone–women as well as men in all sectors–working side-by-side, creating bold and daring solutions. We also need a new kind of leader, someone with a woman’s penchant for cleaning things up . . . so why not a woman?
Unfortunately, the first woman to be president will not have it easy. Perfection will be demanded, and she will be picked apart for weakness.
But 50 years later, when history judges her, textbooks will testify to the burden she bore to be all things to all people and will lament how unfairly she was treated.
They will also describe the difference she made. She will make breakthroughs in negotiations. Under her, weapons will be destroyed. Bridges will be built to other cultures. Thoughtful domestic programs will be created.
If only we could hurry history . . .
Marie Wilson is president of The White House Project and author of "Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World" (Viking, 2004).
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