Commentary

'Commander-in-Chief' May Foreshadow Near Future

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The new prime-time TV series about a woman in the Oval Office begins next week. The White House Project's Marie Wilson says both the show and real-world female politicians are paving the way for a "post-heroic" style of female leadership.

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Marie C. Wilson

(WOMENSENEWS)--This fall, a woman will be president.

Or so proclaim the promotions for ABC's new prime-time drama series, "Commander-In-Chief," the first episode of which airs Tuesday, Sept 27.

On the show, actress Geena Davis tackles the problems of the nation from the Oval Office. If only this were reality TV and not a fictional series.

There is hope on the horizon that a female U.S. president isn't that farfetched.

This show comes at a time when U.S. readiness for a female commander in chief is high.

A Roper Public Affairs poll--commissioned by The White House Project and conducted Sept. 8-11--indicates that 79 percent of 1,000 voters polled would feel comfortable with a female president.

The news is even more promising when you drill down.

Over half of those polled think a woman would do a better job of handling the usual issues with which female politicians are identified: education, health care and human rights. More strikingly, over half of those polled also thought a woman would be equally suited to handling matters of foreign policy, homeland security and the economy, normally considered masculine realms.


So Why Now?

So why are people more receptive now to a woman in the White House?

Pure and simple: It's due to the strides that contemporary women, real and fictional, are making.

Look for instance at Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, former and current secretaries of state. They're of different political stripes, but both demonstrate that women can be strong leaders.

No one is questioning the right, or the inevitability, of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton or Secretary Rice to seek the presidency in 2008. And even fewer will question a female commander in chief after ABC's new show airs. "Commander-in-Chief" will help mold our cultural perceptions of women as leaders and make the actuality of a woman president more believable.

One of the sticking points in envisioning a female president has always been the question of power and who can handle it. Some Americans wonder if a woman would have the strength, toughness and nerve to handle our nation at war or the aftermath of a hurricane like Katrina.

The first episode of "Commander-in-Chief"--The White House Project has partnered with ABC to promote the show--addresses that ticklish issue. In it, Vice President Mackenzie Allen, played by Davis, debates whether to resign after the president dies.

In the scene, the male Speaker of the House (who happens to be next in line for the presidency) accuses Allen of not wanting power and, therefore, not knowing how to use it.

That goes to the root of the problem: of women ourselves doubting our own capacity to handle power. There's the fear that we're not tough enough, or decisive enough, to get the job done. There's the fear of the command-and-control and go-it-alone approach.

All that fear, however, can be turned on its head. The time for leaders who follow in the warrior tradition and are attracted and fueled by power for power's sake is long past.

It is proving less and less effective in business and politics, where the challenges are too complex.


Post-Heroic Leadership

What is needed, in fact, is what Dr. Joyce K. Fletcher of Simmons College, the country's only business school for women, terms "post-heroic" leadership or shared leadership.

Under this paradigm, leadership brings more people into the policy-setting process. It builds relationships across divisions (and countries) and values collaboration.

In her report on post-heroic leadership, Fletcher challenges the primacy of individual achievement and focuses on the value of collective learning and mutual influence. She notes the need for leaders to have more egalitarian relationships and to practice emotional intelligence.

Under Fletcher's model the best decisions are made when all voices are heard and all resources are utilized.

In business, the post-heroic model equates to healthier and more profitable companies; in politics, it brings us closer to democracy.


Women's Way of Leading

It's the kind of leadership that decades of studies have isolated as characteristic of women's way of leading.

This is not because of any intrinsic characteristics that make women better than men. It's just that since power has historically not been automatically projected onto women, women have had to build our base of authority differently, by bringing people together and building communities of trust.

The abilities and values associated with post-heroic leadership lead us to the reasons why women are often helpful in creating and sustaining peace around the world.

The bravest and most moving part of the first episode of "Commander-in-Chief" involves the use of presidential military action to deal with an issue of human rights, expanding our definition of national security.

President Allen uses military personnel to rescue a Nigerian woman accused of adultery. While Allen sees the situation as a human-rights violation, another leader might brush it off.

The fictional Allen does just what should be done and just what I think a real woman would do in the real job of president of the United States.

My hope is that a show like this, and any show with a vision of women in power, will not only depict what we can accept, but inspire citizens to step forward and take on leadership roles themselves.

We don't just need a president with a capital "P."

We need women at all levels and in all sectors, displaying their uniqueness and helping spin the planet differently. Only then will we have both fairness of numbers and a balance of policy decisions, involving all the people in our democracy.

An advocate of women's issues for more than 30 years, Marie Wilson is founder and president of the White House Project and co-creator of Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

For more information:

The White House Project:
http://www.thewhitehouseproject.org/

Reality TV Features 4 Women in Presidential Race:
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1902/

ABC TV: "Commander-in-Chief":
http://abc.go.com/primetime/commanderinchief/articles/

Note: Women's eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.


 
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