Forty years ago, the idea of a female President of the United States was the premise of a frothy Hollywood comedy. In 2005, American television audiences were riveted by "Commander in Chief," a serious weekly drama about the first woman President. Now, with New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton's announcement that she plans to seek the nation's highest political office, the notion of a woman in the White House is no longer fiction, but a strong possibility.
For more than two centuries, Americans have elected only white males to the White House. But activists for women's equality believe the political tide in the United States is turning. Last November's national elections helped California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, a post only twice-removed from the presidency. The fall balloting brought many other women into top political jobs. Women now hold 9 governorships, 71 House seats, and a record 16 out of 100 seats in the U.S. Senate.
Melody Drnach, a Vice President of the National Organization for Women, believes the stage is set for a woman to attain the highest office in the land. "I would like to think that we are moving in that direction," she says. "And with a lot of hard work in the next couple of years, I think that this country is prepared to elect a woman as president of the United States."
Drnach says voters have taken note of the highly visible leadership role being played by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It's the kind of role many voters believe is long overdue for American women, according to Stephen Hess. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Hess, too, believes that America is ready for a woman president.
"To begin with," he explains, "women are the majority of the voters in the U.S. Fifty-two percent of the voters are women. The public opinion polls seem to show that women are particularly interested and anxious to see a woman president. So, in some ways it may be not a disadvantage, but an advantage to be a woman running for president on a major party ticket in our next presidential elections." He concludes that the time has come for women in America to "climb the ladder" to the presidency after a long history of fighting for their rights.
But not everyone is convinced the time is right. Morgan Felchner, editor of the magazine Campaign & Elections, doubts that a majority of Americans would vote for a woman president.
"Americans, in theory, are ready for a female president," Felchner observes. "But when you actually look at the poll numbers, it becomes a little bit more troublesome for a female candidate." She adds that if you ask somebody whether they would vote for a woman candidate, they say yes, but if you ask somebody whether their neighbor would vote for a woman candidate, they more often say no. Felchner says that neighbor poll tends to hover around 50 percent. "So that seems to be a more real number," she concludes, "that about 50 percent of Americans are really ready for a female president."
Political scientists and historians argue endlessly about why there have not been more females in American elective office, and why, until now, there have been no viable, major-party female presidential candidates. But Brooking's Stephen Hess believes the idea of a female president is simply one that has had to evolve, as American society has evolved. "Politics in public life is like anything else," he observes. "You do not start at the top. It is a ladder which you climb up." He points out that women were not even allowed to vote until the time of World War I, so the nation would not have had a woman president before that. "So, in 220 years of the United States, half of that time, women were not national voters!"
Hess adds that for many years, American women were predominatly homemakers, and were less likely than they are today to be in the job market. "So they were not in the sort of lineup from which we choose presidents," Hess notes. But that lineup today includes a growing roster of well-known female lawmakers, governors, and other experienced political operators. It also now includes one announced candidate - Senator Hillary Clinton - who already has personal experience in the White House as First Lady.
Melody Drnach of the National Organization for Women says the Clinton element is likely to have a dramatic impact on the way Americans choose their next president. "Senator Clinton has a proven leadership [ability]," Drnach says. "She has got a track record of success and support, she has been a staunch supporter of women's rights and will continue to do so. She is very talented, very committed and she is a very good Senator. And we have great hope that, if she wins the [Democratic] party's nomination, she will be a very strong president."
According to a new Newsweek poll of registered voters in the United States, 86 percent say they would vote for a qualified woman candidate for president if their party nominated one. But when they were asked whether America is ready to elect a woman president, only 55 percent say yes. Still, that's up 7 percentage points from a 1999 poll. Curiously, the Newsweek poll found that men are more likely than women to say the country is ready for a woman president. Those attitudes may well shift between now and the 2008 Presidential election, still almost two years down the road.