Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?
Marianne Schnall’s 8-year-old daughter, Lotus, asked that simple question back in 2008 during a family conversation about the country’s first African-American president.
The answer, though, wasn’t simple, and it took Schnall, the founder and executive director of the Web site feminist.com, on a journey that led to writing the book, “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?” published in November by Seal Press.
It’s a “catchy” title, Schnall admitted, but it’s the tagline that tells the rest of the story: “Conversations about women, leadership and power.”
The book is a collection of interviews — or conversations, really — that Schnall had with politicians, public officials, thought leaders, writers, artists and activists, including Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof, Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Olympia Snowe, Joy Behar and Melissa Etheridge. She also tried to include a variety of perspectives from men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and to cross racial and generational lines.
The issue goes beyond a female in the Oval Office; the United States ranks 77th on an international list of women’s participation in national government.
Schnall asked each person the same question Lotus had asked her: Why haven’t we had a woman president?
“Everybody had a different take on it, but some common, unifying themes did emerge,” Schnall said. “One was the fact that we don’t encourage women and girls to see themselves as leaders or to pursue leadership positions, and because that’s how they see themselves, that’s how men and boys see them.”
“It starts with young girls are not taught to want to lead,” Jessica Valenti, author and founder of feministing.com, said in the book. “Wanting to lead and wanting to be powerful and wanting to be in leadership positions are seen as negative qualities in women that are really crushed from an early age in our culture.”
And it does start early. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker, actress and wife of California’s lieutenant governor, told Schnall how her daughter, at the age of 3 1/2,when asked if she wanted to be president someday, said, “No, only boys can be president.”
Many of those Schnall spoke with blamed the influence of the media on how girls begin to perceive themselves. “There was talk about the changes we need in our media, not only the messages that girls and women are consuming about themselves, but the messages that affect how men view women,” Schnall said.
In the book, Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media, asked,”When are we going to start to take the power that we have as consumers of media and demand that it be different?”
There’s also the issue of how the media cover female politicians. “Everybody can remember the very sexist, derogatory comments that were made about Hillary Clinton during her campaign or even are made about leaders like Nancy Pelosi,” Schnall said. “That impacts how women view themselves and how men view women leaders.”
Another challenge faced by female politicians mirrors the balancing act for all working mothers. Republican political strategist Ana Navarro was blunt in her explanation of the gender gap in elected offices and high-level corporate America: “Because, until very recently, women have been the ones that bore the brunt of family and home responsibilities.”
Combining career and family can be done, of course. Mary Fallin, a Republican and the first female governor of Oklahoma, told Schnall about being a single mom taking care of her bedridden mother during part of the 12 years she served as lieutenant governor.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who proposed expansion of the Family Leave Act this fall and is the mother of two young sons, said in the book “that there is a way that you can be part of the decision-making fabric of this country and still be a good mother.”
Families will also benefit from “the transformation of our culture for men and boys, too,” Schnall said, by rethinking gender roles so men who want to take more responsibility at home have that option rather than “work crazy hours.”
As Gloria Steinem told Schnall, “Boys can be babysitters, too.” The hard-and-fast rules, the generalizations, all need to be thrown out so individuals can make the choices that are right for them and their families.
The “conundrum of the likability issue” was brought up by Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In” and chief operating officer of Facebook. As women become more successful, they’re less liked, yet that doesn’t happen with men.
The need for campaign finance reform was also cited. “If you have less money and more civility,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “you will have more women [in politics].”
Although Hillary Clinton’s name is a common thread throughout the book as the most likely woman to become president in the near future, those interviewed talk about the need to create “farm teams” — a pipeline of women coming up through the ranks of local offices, state legislatures and governorships.
“Shoe leather” and now social media can help win elections for “offices like city council and school board and state representative and mayor in smaller size communities,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in the book, which serve as stepping stones for higher offices. She said she “knocked on 11,432 doors” in her first race for the state legislature.
Schnall sees her book as the first step in ongoing conversations about the encouragement of girls and young women to become leaders and to consider political careers. A number of programs and even high school and college curriculums aim to inspire girls and young women to develop leadership qualities.
“The most immediate things we can do,” Schnall said, “is to be aware as parents of the messages our daughters — and our sons — receive.”
But she’s already impressed with the younger generation. “My daughters are so much more centered and have so much more self-esteem and a sense of who they are than I had at their age,”Schnall said. “Just by looking at the younger generation, I feel like we’ve made strides.”
She emphasizes that the issue of a woman president — and having more women in leadership roles in both government and corporate life — goes beyond gender equality.
“Ultimately, what’s important to me is that this isn’t looked at as a women’s issue, which it definitely has been in the past,” Schnall said. “It’s more than just an issue of equality — it really is about whether we are a democracy. It’s not about whether women are better than men. It’s about who will best represent our country.”