Carol Moseley Braun

(WOMENSENEWS)–Pundits and politicians have scoffed at Carol Moseley Braun and her recent foray into presidential politics, noting that the former Democratic senator from Illinois has little chance of beating out other contenders with more experience, more name recognition and more money in their campaign accounts in 2004.

For Moseley-Braun, the point may not be winning this race. Her goal may be raising issues that concern women and making it easier for her and other women to enter and win in other campaigns.

Moseley-Braun is deliberately highlighting her gender, arguing that a female candidate would help the United States project an image of diversity and inclusion. She has staked her campaign on the unique attributes women bring to the political table and is aggressively calling attention to women’s issues, including the proverbial glass ceiling that has prevented a woman from reaching top offices.

“In these difficult times for America, I believe women have a contribution to make to move our country toward peace, prosperity and progress,” she said during her speech at the Democratic National Committee’s annual winter meeting last month. “I am Carol Moseley-Braun, and I want to be your nominee for President of the United States because now is the time for inclusion, and equality, and real democracy.”

And women’s groups are cheering her on. Even if she doesn’t win, they say, the very fact that she has tossed her hat into the ring has already done wonders for women and girls across the country.

“Feminists are delighted that Carol Moseley Braun is exploring a presidential run in 2004,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. “A woman’s place is definitely in the White House. Moseley Braun is a long-time women’s rights supporter with a record to back up her rhetoric.”

Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to electing America’s first woman as president, agreed. “She gives us at least one presence for women and a little taste of democratic representation,” she said. “She’ll bring a different voice to the race and she’ll make sure, just because she’s there, that men around her really have to think, more than they would ordinarily do, about women.”

Research Supports Importance of Female Candidates

Indeed, research shows that female candidates for any political office set positive examples for girls and women, who tend not to envision themselves in the political realm. Female candidates also help the public adjust to the idea of a female lawmaker and compel the media to shift the focus from their gender to their qualifications.

Moseley Braun’s presence, as a result, could help women move toward parity in politics, women’s advocates say. Anything helps in the United States, a country that ranks 59th among nations in its representation of women in national office. In the U.S. women hold about 12 percent of such positions. In the past decade, the U.N. set a goal of 30 percent female representation in national office.

U.S. women, in fact, make up only 22 percent of the state legislatures, 14 percent of Congress, and 10 percent of the governorships. Of more than 12,000 members of Congress who have served since the founding of the United States, about 2 percent–or 215–have been women.

Female presidential candidates can also help female citizens in another important way. Under the national media spotlight, they influence the political debate by addressing issues of particular concern to women that male candidates tend to ignore, according to Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.

She cited domestic issues such as budget deficits, gun control and welfare as examples of critically important issues that male candidates often downplay on the campaign trail to the detriment of women’s well-being.

Reproductive rights is one issue that was virtually ignored in the 2002 midterm elections but should loom larger in this election cycle, especially if one, or perhaps two, Supreme Court justices decide to retire, she said, adding that women are more likely to campaign on that issue than are men.

“A woman candidate makes men have to outdo themselves to be women-friendly,” O’Connor said. “Democratic candidates for president cannot win without the support in part of single women voters. It forces them to pay much more attention to those issues.”

At this early stage in the nominating process, Moseley-Braun’s influence has yet to be felt on the playing field. The eight other candidates in the race are still in the process of raising money, building campaign teams and formulating their agendas.

Problem of ‘Gender Rather Than Agenda’

While Moseley-Braun’s entrance into the playing field delighted many women’s advocates, who only months earlier had chalked up the 2004 presidential contest as yet another all-male feeding frenzy for the Democratic nod, some women’s groups are still concerned that more women have not joined the fray.

Never have two or more serious female candidates run simultaneously, a fact that, in Wilson’s words, has left the female candidates who have run subject to questions about her “gender rather than her agenda.”

“Men wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘I should run for president,'” she said. “It’s much more difficult for women because it’s not normal yet to step up.”

She pointed to Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a North Carolina Republican, who received more coverage on her personal style and attire–and less on her legislative positions–than any of her competitors when she ran for president in 2000. Prior to that, the last woman to run a halfway serious race for the presidency was then-Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder in 1988. The previous African American woman who ran for the presidency, Shirley Chisholm, also emphasized her gender during the campaign and, like Moseley-Braun, made it clear her candidacy was about representing all Americans.

Eight men have already announced their presidential campaigns, many of whom, including the attention-getting Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, are less experienced than many women who currently hold office.

The challenge, Wilson said, is to encourage the many qualified women–such as California Democrats’ House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and two-term Sen. Dianne Feinstein–to do the same. Even a losing presidential campaign serves many important functions, not the least of which is serving as a springboard for another significant office, as Dole found out in her successful Senate campaign last fall.

If 2004 doesn’t prove to be the year for a female president, 2008 may well be, especially if rumors prove true that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is planning to run.

She is already the Democrats’ strongest candidate–a December poll conducted by CNN/Time magazine showed that the former first lady led the pack of Democratic presidential candidates, even though she had said she wasn’t running. Since she first took office, she has aggressively positioned herself for a nationwide run.

“When we started this project, we almost called it the 2008 project,” said Wilson. “It got people thinking. Our own hunch has always been 2008.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Carol Moseley-Braun for President 2004:

The White House Project–
Elect a President: