There are 31 women living today who are now or have been the president or prime minister of their countries. None of them is American, of course. But the tenures of Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino and countless others have provided us with powerful examples of female leadership for the past several decades. And yet, as the candidates dreaming of glory in the West Wing line up for the 2004 presidential election, I count no women among them.

With nearly two years to go before we head to the polls, we've got John Edwards, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Al Sharpton, Joe Biden, Bob Graham, Christopher Dodd, Gary Hart and Wesley Clark either declaring their candidacies or musing aloud about doing so. So where are the equally qualified women who have the ego, chutzpah, self-confidence or self-delusion to say, "I have a vision for the United States. I'm right and I am going to run for president"? I'd even settle for a few self-indulgent female millionaires or career rabble-rousers.

By now, most Americans would take as a given that women are equal to men and should compete for leadership positions. But when it comes to the White House, not only aren't women being elected, they're not even stepping up as potential candidates, regardless of what their chances might be. Some men on the other hand -- think Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and even Morrie Taylor, the millionaire tire salesman -- anoint themselves candidates even in the absence of a groundswell of public support, which women never do.

So what stops American women from stepping up? It is not for lack of equally wealthy, equally experienced women. (And it is certainly not for lack of women who are as underqualified and inexperienced as some of the male candidates are.) There are plenty of female CEOs, congresswomen, governors and retired generals whose resumes look as good, or as bad, as those of the preliminary 2004 lineup. So why no Elizabeth Dole this time around? With the exception of a whisper by former Illinois senator Carol Moseley-Braun, there are no women today -- Democrats, Republicans or independents -- who seem to want to set up their own exploratory committees.

As someone who has studied the careers of almost every living female president or prime minister, I see several possible explanations:

* All in the attitude. Psychologists note that men have "positive illusion." Men believe they are better at what they do than they are. Women have "negative illusion." They don't think they are as good as they actually are. This lets men jump into the fray, raise their hands before they have something to say or take a job they are unprepared for. It means women hold themselves back from goals that they are eminently qualified to achieve.

You could go up to almost any man in the street, any man, and say, "I think you should run for president." Chances are he would straighten up and respond that you were right. This is a wonderful trait that men exhibit.

Yet tell a three-term female senator the same thing and she'd probably reply that she couldn't possibly make a run for the White House because she might lose or not have enough experience or be unable to raise the money or burden her family.

Compare her with Thatcher. The Iron Lady had no doubts about her abilities. When I interviewed her once, she talked about "the greasy pole of politics" and told me forcefully, "Life is not fair, and if you think it is, you are wrong. In politics, you do what it takes by principle, by argument and by getting it across."

* Culture and dynasties. Being head of state is not gender-specific, though having female leaders can often seem culture-specific. In the Nordic countries -- Norway, Iceland and Finland have all had female heads of state or government -- there is a prevailing culture of equality, as well as myths and legends of strong women. In those countries, the fishing economies for centuries had the men going out to sea for months on end, while the women stayed behind, participating fully in public and political life.

Other countries, such as India, Pakistan, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia, have had female leaders, not because these countries are so progressive, but because family dynasties give women the legitimacy and support to run and win. We have had three presidential dynasties, loosely defined, in this country -- Adams, Roosevelt, Bush -- but no female members have climbed the family tree to high office. That's unlike Pakistan and Indonesia, which turned to popular leaders' daughters (Bhutto and Sukarnoputri) to run their governments, seeing in them the courage and strength to lead. Politically dynastic families here seem to invest the characteristics of the father in the son, but stop short of doing the same for the daughter.

* Crisis capabilities. Americans say their president should have foreign policy experience, even though nearly all recent presidents had little or no experience until foreign events were thrust upon them. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush all learned on the job. The challenge for women is that voters assume any woman is just not as capable as any man to rise to the crisis, handle the bully leaders, subdue the terrorist. A 1999 Deloitte & Touche poll found that the public puts more stock in male candidates' abilities to tackle tough issues in foreign affairs. Forty-five percent of respondents said that a male president would be more skilled at foreign policy; only 15 percent favored a female president. Respondents overwhelmingly said that a male president would be better at dealing with heads of state in a too-long list of countries, including Iraq, China, Russia, Japan and Israel.

So an inexperienced female candidate is not on a level playing field with her equally inexperienced male counterpart. He will be assumed capable until he proves otherwise. She will have to prove her capabilities or be assumed incapable.

* Women and the pipeline. Governorships and the vice presidency have been the only direct paths to the presidency at least since 1960. Other countries' prime ministers and presidents come from the ranks of doctors or teachers or poets. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister, is a physician; Vaira Vike-Freiberga was a psychologist and linguist before she became Latvian president. In the United States, we fish from a much smaller pond. We have not elected a senator since John F. Kennedy, or a military man since Dwight Eisenhower. As we know well, no woman has been U.S. vice president, and fewer than 20 have been governors. Even congressional experience is a difficult path to the White House. We either need to broaden our definition of where good leaders come from or fill those pipelines soon with women.

* The power of example. A little white boy born in this country can dream of becoming president and can be reinforced by whom he sees doing that job. Not so the little girl. A former president of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, told me that after she had been in office eight years, she found that young boys asked whether they could be president of Iceland, since they had only seen a woman in the office. The mirror is that powerful.

That's why, for more women to be inspired to run for president, some women need to do just that: simply get out there and put their vision in front of the American people.

The National Women's Political Caucus reports that when women run in general elections, they stand the same chance as men. But the absolute number of women running is so much lower than the number of men. If three or four women ran in the presidential primaries at once, perhaps the media and the public would stop over-scrutinizing dress and hair and shoes and judge the women the way they do the men. With more than one woman in the race, female candidates would feel less pressure to represent all women across the political spectrum, and the tokenism would, eventually, end.

We don't need perfect female candidates. We need a few women to look at the current field of presidential hopefuls and think to themselves, "If he can do it, so can I." Laura Liswood, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership, is secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders and co-founder of the White House Project, which encourages women to run for president.