America, the nation dedicated to the pioneer spirit, has turned out to be a stronghold for men. But if an 11-inch-tall doll with long blonde hair and permanently arched feet has her way, things are about to change.
In May 2000 the Mattel company introduced a special new doll:President Barbie. Blue power suit, perfect hairdo and available in three types: Caucasian, Latino and Afro-American. The person behind this innovative Barbie was Marie Wilson, who would prefer to have a real woman for president. But as an initial step, she went to Mattel with an intriguing proposal: “Let’s change Barbie’s dollhouse into the White House.”
Normally Wilson’s work goes beyond introducing frivolous toys. President of the Ms. Foundation and co-founder of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” she is also the founder of the White House Project. Established in 1998 to promote the election of the first woman president of the United States in 2008, it has developed into a network that links together many influential American women.
But getting a woman into the Oval Office requires unusual measures, for politics in the U.S. remains a male stronghold. In a list that rates 160 countries according to how many women hold executive positions in politics and the judiciary, the U.S. – the birthplace of modern democracy – is in 45th place. Of the 535 members of Congress, only 76, or 14%, are women.
Supposedly Americans aren’t against women leaders; when asked, 93% indicated that in principle they were willing to vote for a female presidential candidate. But in 1984, when presidential candidate Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first female candidate for vice-president, she faced fierce media opposition. Ferraro, who had already served three terms as a member of the House of Representatives, was constantly confronted by the question of whether a woman was suitable for the second-highest office in America. The real battle wasn’t against the opposing candidate, George Bush, Sr., but against conservative images of female capability – images that are formed in childhood and that Marie Wilson has targeted with the White House Project and President Barbie.
The disproportionate representation of women in American politics provides argument enough for the White House Project. But for Wilson, that’s hardly the only reason. “We want a woman in the White House because women are better leaders in a complex world,” she says. “They involve more people in the decision-making process and they are better negotiators. They will focus more attention on matters involving human safety – family, education, childcare, health – and not be obsessed by international safety.”
Thinking out loud, Wilson wonders whether a woman president would have gone to war with Iraq. She suspects that the decision-making would have been different and points to the historical position of women. “Women have always been heads of the household,” she says. “In order to protect the quality of family life, women have learned to bring people together to find a solution that works best for everyone. This is not just theory – we have piles of research into female leadership to back this up.”
Francis Fukuyama, political economics professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of The End of History, has incorporated much of this theory in an essay on women and international politics, published in Foreign Affairs in 1998, which asks whether male aggression is a biological or cultural phenomenon. Although there are women soldiers and terrorists and the female prison population in the world appears to be increasing, the general consensus is that physical violence tends to be a male phenomenon, whereas women have other forms of competition and violence. The reason, says Fukuyama, is biology – that is, muscle power – and the result is macho behavior. Thus, for example, at the start of the American invasion of Iraq, Saddam and Bush performed the familiar ritual macho dance in the media. He concludes that a world with more women in power would be a different place because they would be less inclined to use power in international politics and be more inclined to build coalitions. And even though true equality between men and women has yet to be realized in the national parliament (see heading),] the trend is undoubtedly moving towards greater participation of women in a growing equilibrium. Consequently, predicting that world politics will change is no longer so bold.
At the time of its publication, many feminists greeted Fukuyama’s essay with jeers. With surprising fervor, they claimed that women can be as aggressive and violent as men. And that Olaf Palme, Willy Brandt, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were typically female leaders. Why, they asked, should we assume that world politics would automatically change under the influence of women if, after almost a century of women’s suffrage in the western world, it has resulted in such a small measure of paid maternity leave or affordable day care centres?
The reactions appear to suggest that the striving for equality between men and women is even more important than the appreciation of typically female qualities. Which is why Marie Wilson is ultimately less concerned with the sex of a political leader: “We must not place women opposite men. The issue is which woman is in power; the main concern is the agenda.” As far as this is concerned women seem to have different priorities. Women are more interested in international relationships. According to Wilson, “it always turns out that the poorest nations are hungriest for war. Terrorism is mainly ‘practised’ by people in oppressed or dead-end situations.” She points out that recent research by the University of Berkeley indicates that women’s response to stress is different to that of men. Men prefer to fight or flee while women tend to shake hands and communicate.
It is said that Bill Clinton was the first female president of the United States. According to Marie Wilson, he did bring with him many supposedly female qualities. Clinton had a talent for bringing people together. He found the balance between showing his feelings and a show of power. He could be openly emotional (he was the first president to shed tears in public), but also showed decisiveness. And Clinton had more women in his administration than any of his predecessors.
But Wilson believes that a man who shows feminine qualities is accepted far more easily than a women who acts in a “male” fashion. “A woman politician who appears feminine is soon regarded as a little mother,” she says. “She is not regarded as being decisive. A woman leader must be tough, strong and caring, all at the same time.”
Accordingly, the White House Project advises women with presidential aspirations to appear at public events, wear formal clothing, talk about crime, taxes and economy and use firm language. In other words, being feminine is not allowed.
Wilson cautions that the choice of a woman for president should be based not on her sex but on her political agenda. “It’s possible for a woman candidate not to do a good job,” she says. “Look at Margaret Thatcher, who tightened welfare laws and did away with a program that provided children with free milk. She also started and ended her career with the same number of female members of Parliament. The only women for whom Margaret Thatcher paved the way were the Spice Girls.”
For years, Wilson has been saying that, as a matter of logic and mathematics, if women constitute half of the population, they should occupy half of all leading positions. But now her reasons for promoting women politicians have changed. In Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking Press), published in March, she says: “In a few years the world has become very unstable. Terrorists attacked us on our own soil; in response we waged war against Afghanistan and Iraq. The formerly robust U.S. economy will soon sag under the biggest deficit in its history. Corporate greed has wiped out whole companies, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs. Millions of Americans continue to live with inadequate health care. When I look at the issues we face and when I look at the changes we need, I am as convinced as I ever have been that our future depends on the leadership of women – not to replace men, but to transform our options alongside them.”
This should happen in 2008. Who will be the first woman in the White House? Wilson has already made her list. Her choices are Senator Olympia Snow (Maine); Governor Janet Napolitano (Arizona); Governor Kathleen Sibelius (Kansas); Governor Jennifer Granholm (Michigan); Representative Jane Harman (California); and, of course, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (New York).
Ms. Clinton’s name is the one heard most often on talk shows. But every potential female presidential candidate still faces the Ferraro phenomenon: Regardless of her background and experience, she will have to prove that she is suitable for a job that the political culture regards as belonging to a man. In any male candidate, Hillary Clinton’s strong self-confidence would be seen as evidence of leadership qualities, but in her case, these characteristics seem to inspire fear and, for many people, considerable dislike. However unjustified it may be, if she is to return to the White House, she will have to overcome these reactions. As Marie Wilson says. “We are striving for a world in which race and gender are irrelevant, but we have not got there yet.”
Often this future seems far away. Judith Steinberg, the wife of presidential candidate Howard Dean, was recently criticized by the media for not offering her husband sufficient public support. But Katha Pollitt reminds us that in The Nation (February 16, 2004) there was no sign of indignation when Bob Dole made a financial contribution to one of his wife Elizabeth’s competitors during her brief campaign for the presidency in 2000.
This reality puts enormous pressure on female candidates to present themselves in the same way as male counterparts with whom the political world and the electorate are more familiar. This creates the scenario of Margaret Thatcher as “the best man in the cabinet” – and therein lies the White House Project’s fundamental dilemma: A woman in the White House would be a huge breakthrough, but the real goal is to change the political culture.
Simply electing a woman is not enough to create a different political environment because she would be operating in a male culture and would constantly have to prove that she is up to the job. “What we need,” Wilson says, “is a woman leader who has enough women around her to give her the necessary support.” Nonetheless, having a woman in the Oval Office would command everyone’s attention. It would become awkward, Wilson suggests, to send an all-male delegation to see the president.
“There only has to be a woman in the White House once,” she says, “for great changes to take place in the world. Madam President will teach girls that they can also do what boys do.”
And this is why President Barbie is so important.
For more information: White House Project, 110 Wall Street, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10005, USA, www.thewhitehouseproject.org. For information on Marie Wilson’s book: www.closingtheleadershipgap.com.