Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–As a new election cycle heats up, women have a better chance than ever before to reach the governors’ mansions. That’s important for presidential politics in the future because of one fact: Men step easily from different walks of life into a run for the top job. Women don’t.

Businessman Ross Perot left the corporate world to make a serious bid for the U.S. presidency, as did magazine tycoon Steve Forbes. Ralph Nader drew on his years as an anti-corporate activist to mount a presidential campaign that drew millions of voters. Ronald Reagan, while a two-term governor of California, used his visibility as an actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild to capture the White House. Gen. Colin Powell could have had the Republican nomination if he’d wanted it, and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was elected handily.

But could women do the same? Could feminist Gloria Steinem or conservative activists Linda Chavez or Lynn Cheney have leapt from advocacy to presidential politics? What about Oprah Winfrey, not only one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, but a famous talk show host as well? Or actor-activist Susan Sarandon?

You would be hard-pressed to find a political pundit who would give any one of these women a snowball’s chance in you-know-where. There may be only one job that could produce a female president: governor of a state.

Women, despite all the gains they have made, are rarely seen as effective leaders and managers. Philanthropist Barbara Lee, one of the founders of The White House project, whose goal is to get a woman into the Oval Office, sees the governor’s mansion as the best launching pad for a future chief executive. Her organization, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, conducted a multi-part study of women running for governor, which resulted in a guide called “Keys to the Governor’s Office.” (Lee’s foundation is also a financial supporter of Women’s Enews.)

Women candidates interviewed were well aware of the barriers they faced. One described what she believed was a common reaction to her candidacy: “Even though everybody knew my credentials were vastly superior to my opponents, a woman can’t do it. It is the feeling–and I have had this every time I have run for office–that ‘I just can’t picture myself walking into the governor’s office and having to deal with a woman.'”

Elizabeth Dole Should Have Been a Contender

Women still start out in back of the pack in most races, no matter what their credentials. Elizabeth Dole is a good example. She seemed superbly positioned in 2000 to make a strong run for the presidency. Many men would have given their eye teeth for her credentials: former cabinet member in the Reagan administration, head of a well-known national organization (the American Red Cross), and high name recognition. More importantly, in poll after poll, she beat Al Gore head-to-head when voters were asked what presidential candidate they would prefer.

But researchers Caroline Heldman, Susan J. Carroll and Stephanie Olson of Rutgers University note that early on, while political insiders and the public regarded Dole as a strong contender, the media did not. The three presented their study of the coverage of Dole’s candidacy at a September 2000 meeting of the American Political Science Association.

Early on, they reported, Dole was not covered like her male colleagues and she never received the level of coverage that her polling indicates she should have had. In fact, she received about the same coverage as Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, two decidedly un-charismatic men who lacked polling strength and had little chance of winning. In most respects, the Rutgers team says Dole’s coverage was more similar to that of Forbes, Bauer and outsider Alan Keyes than it was to that of George W. Bush and John McCain.

Often, the press focused on her “first woman” status, giving the impression that she was a “backbencher,” not the seasoned political operative she in fact was.

In pre-primary days, the study found, John McCain received quite favorable attention, even when he was only a relatively unknown face in the crowd and well before he became a media star. He was often called a “presidential hopeful,” while Dole was usually mentioned in terms of her presumed inability to raise money.

“Dole was most often described as a candidate lacking fund-raising ability and a real shot at the nomination,” according to the Keys to the Governors Office report. Of course this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more the press says you can’t raise money, the more you can’t raise money.

The press focused more on Dole’s personality traits than those of other candidates. The Detroit News dubbed her speaking style “Tammy Faye Baker meets the Home Shopping Network.” There was speculation about her sex life and her hairdo was compared to an immobile fabric that wouldn’t wrinkle or stretch.

And the press often portrayed Dole as a lightweight. “Dole’s character and her substance were questioned to such a degree and in such critical ways that it is hard to imagine that gender biases were not at play,” the Rutgers political scientists found.

Dole indeed had some real problems–including her husband, former Sen. Robert Dole, whose careless comments about liking another candidate made her look silly. But male candidates’ perceived deficiencies did not cause the media to write them off. George W. Bush’s malapropisms and his lack of knowledge about the world were lampooned in late-night comedy, and in the robotic department, Al Gore made Liddy Dole look positively spontaneous.

Elizabeth Dole should have been a serious contender, but she was written off so early that she would have needed to be a combination of Madonna and Bill Clinton at his best to have a shot.

Governorship Confers Credibility, Leadership Experience

All this points out why the governorship may be the only credible route of the first woman president. First of all, the job trumps women’s perceived incompetence and lack of experience. If you can run a state, it’s hard for people to say you can’t lead or that you are a political novice. (Even if you are in the Senate, you will face the charge that you can’t run things or meet a payroll.)

This year, as Women’s Enews has reported, 30 women are running for their state’s top job. Among them are Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (the daughter of Robert Kennedy), former Attorney General Janet Reno for Florida’s post, and candidates in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation study had some good news and some bad news for these candidates. Across the board, men prefer male candidates, while women are ambivalent. Voters over 50 strongly prefer men, but younger, college-educated women express a strong preference for female candidates. Suburban voters tend to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate, with an open mind about gender.

It may be that the first woman who hears “Hail to the Chief” when she enters a room will be a college-educated, centrist soccer mom who has paid her dues. And her head will turn when she hears the words, “Hey, Governor!”

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

For more information:

Bridging the gender gap in governor’s office:

Also see Women’s Enews, June 2, 2002:
“Campaign Is On for Female Presidential Candidates”:

The White House Project
Top of the Ticket Campaign: