When Will We Elect a Female President?

34bMedia outlets are already declaring Senator Hillary Clinton a “front-runner” for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and some have even speculated on a potential GOP candidacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As speaker of the House—and third in the line of succession—Nancy Pelosi is closer to the presidency than any American woman has ever been. The table seems to be set for America to elect its first female president sooner rather than later—but are the American people truly ready?

“People say they are more receptive to the idea of a female president—at least, that’s what the public-opinion data show,” says UAB political scientist Holly Brasher, Ph.D. “These attitudes go along with the increased acceptance of women in the workplace; the presidency is, after all, a job. As women accept other responsibilities in the workplace—for example, as CEOs of large corporations and in similarly important positions—it becomes easier for people to see a woman as the chief executive.”

Research shows that female political candidates in general are perceived as being more trustworthy and honest, Brasher says. “In a year when issues of character and corruption are particularly important, that perception could help a female candidate.” However, she adds that, fairly or not, women are generally less likely to be perceived as strong-willed—which could be disadvantageous at a time when concern over national security is paramount. “But we’ve never had a female president, so there’s been no real opportunity to explore this issue,” Brasher points out. “A perception of women as less strong on issues such as national security is, as yet, unjustified.”

This brings into focus an intriguing question: How is it that countries such as Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, where the roles of women in society are supposedly so restricted, have elected female heads of state—while the United States, supposedly the world’s foremost example of freedom and equality, has not?

Brasher says the answer has a lot to do with campaign financing. “Many countries have public financing for campaigns, which provides for a better ‘farm team’ because women have a better chance to be elected to lower elective offices and therefore develop the credentials needed to compete for the top office,” she explains. “In our entrepreneurial system, where candidates must raise their own campaign funds, women and minorities are at a disadvantage, because contributors are less likely to contribute to their campaign organizations.”

Female candidates also sometimes get a boost from “advantages of heredity in other countries, which we as Americans tend to view suspiciously,” Brasher notes. Numerous monarchies have crowned female leaders over the years, of course, but even many democratic countries have elected women to succeed their fathers or husbands: India elected Indira Gandhi two years after the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru; in nearby Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated president Ziaur Rahman, recently finished her second term as president.

Americans may actually be warming to the idea of such connections, however. As Brasher says, “voters do feel more comfortable with a name they recognize.” So will that help Hillary Clinton in 2008? Yes and no, says Brasher. “Hillary is enormously advantaged by having gone down the road to the presidency with Bill Clinton—in a sense, she knows the way there. She knows the pitfalls and the challenges.” However, Brasher adds that Clinton still carries plenty of baggage from her husband’s political scandals, and that “will hurt her” as pundits and voters start to decide the 2008 race.

The visibility of simply being a senator, too, could do more harm than good to Clinton’s candidacy. “When voters don’t know much about a candidate, they project their own preferences onto the candidate,” Brasher explains. “Voters perceive unknown candidates as sharing their views and embodying their best hopes. That’s why governors are so much more likely to succeed than senators.

“The conventional wisdom is that senators do not succeed because they have such public records of performance and votes on issues, but this is not accurate—governors have very public records as well. The advantage that governors have is that they are largely unknown outside of their states, and given the tendency to perceive unknown candidates favorably, this has translated into a powerful asset.”

So when will a woman get elected president? Brasher seems to think it depends less on the “national mood” and more on the individual candidates. “The most successful female and minority leaders appear to be those who are utterly unconcerned with their own gender and race,” she says. “Colin Powell is not self-conscious about race; Margaret Thatcher, when she was asked how she felt about being a female prime minister, answered that she did not think of herself as a female prime minister, only as the prime minister. I anticipate that we will see a successful female or minority candidate when we have one who has this quality.”

— Doug Gillett