Marianne Schnall’s new book poses a simple question: Why does America lag behind so many other countries when it comes to electing a female leader?
This book started with a question. When Barack Obama was first elected, my family and I were talking about how wonderful it was to have our first African American president. My then-eight-year-old daughter, Lotus, looked at me through starry eyes and deadpanned this seemingly simple, obvious question: “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” It was a really good question, one that, despite having spent two decades running the women’s nonprofit website Feminist.com and writing about women’s issues, I found difficult to answer. But it is these types of questions, often out of the mouths of babes, that can wake us up out of a trance. Many inequities have become such a seamless part of our history and culture that we may subliminally begin to accept them as “just how it is” and not question the “why” or explore the possibility that circumstances could be different.
It does seem a bit crazy when you think of it: When so many other nations have women presidents, why doesn’t the United States? Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Great Britain three times. Argentina, Iceland, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Finland, Ireland, Liberia, Chile, and South Korea have elected female heads of state. Yet the United States, presumably one of the most progressive countries in the world, lags dismally behind. We have finally elected an African American president; when will we celebrate that same milestone for women?
The closest we have come to having a woman president was Hillary Clinton’s nearly successful primary campaign against Barack Obama in 2008. In Obama, she had a formidable opponent, one who also broke through important barriers. Though it was a tight, fascinating, and at times contentious race, Obama prevailed. As Hillary observed in her powerful concession speech, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.” She added, speaking to the emotional crowd gathered at Washington’s National Building Museum, “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time. That has always been the path of progress in America.”
Fast-forward a few years later to the 2011 primary season, when I was talking to an editor at CNN’s In America division about writing a piece for them. I was about to cover the Women’s Media Center awards, where I would be interviewing people like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, and others, so I asked CNN if there were any questions in particular they wanted me to ask. They said they were interested in the attendees’ impressions of why women have gained such little momentum in Washington just four years after having a near presidential contender, and what we can do to get more women into the pipeline of political leadership. Taking that one step further, I decided to add a question related to my daughter’s query by asking, “What will it take to make a woman president?” That article wound up on the CNN home page and received hundreds of comments, both positive and negative. The popularity of the article made me realize how important and timely this topic really was, and that it was worth exploring even further.
So here it is: my journey to get answers to some of these questions through speaking to some of the most influential journalists, activists, politicians, and thought leaders of today. Why haven’t we had a woman president? What will it take? And why is it important? While I use a woman president as a symbol, this book is also about the broader goal of encouraging women and girls as leaders and change agents in their lives, their communities, and the larger world. It also explores the many changing paradigms occurring in politics and in our culture, which the recent election seems to confirm. I hope to spotlight these positive shifts, as well as identify where the remaining obstacles and challenges are, in hopes that by looking at these themes from so many sides and perspectives, we can move closer to meaningful and effective solutions.
Certainly, we need to imagine not only a world where a woman can be president, but one in which women are equally represented in Congress and many other positions of leadership and influence in our society. While it was history-making to have elected 20 women to the Senate in 2012, 20 percent is still far from parity. Women are 50 percent of the population, yet they occupy just a fraction of that in elected office. The United States currently ranks seventy-seventh on an international list of women’s participation in national government. And the numbers are not much better in the corporate world: a meager 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women hold about 14 percent of executive-officer positions and 16 percent of board seats. Women are in only about five percent of executive positions in the media. Across the board, women are rarely adequately represented at the tables where important decisions are being made.
Yet everywhere I look today, very promising campaigns and projects are emerging to help women attain positions of influence and leadership. A few years ago, I wrote an article about then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Women in Public Service Project, whose ambitious goal is global, political, and civic leadership of at least 50 percent women by 2050. I also interviewed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about her Off the Sidelines Project, which is “a nationwide call to action to get more women engaged . . . to enter political life and be heard on political issues.” And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has certainly helped to spark a nationwide conversation and movement and an important debate over the factors impacting women’s leadership and advancement in the workplace.
When I first set out to create this book, I estimated that I might do 20 interviews. As it turns out, I more than doubled that number. And since these important topics of women, leadership, and power have come up frequently in so many of my past interviews with high profile figures, I decided to also include some of their insightful quotes on spreads interspersed throughout the book. Writing this book has indeed been a fascinating journey and adventure in and of itself, and has almost had a life of its own. I was so heartened and felt so supported by the many incredible people who not only granted me an interview for this book but also suggested others I should talk to, often giving me contact information or making introductions for me. From this response, I realized that this is a topic that is on everyone’s mind right now, and, as many of the people I interviewed—from Donna Brazile to Pat Mitchell—seemed to indicate, “now is the time.”
These are issues that I think benefit from a hashing-out of multiple perspectives: men’s, women’s, Republicans’, Democrats’, racial, and generational. I tried as best I could within the limited time, capacity, and access I had to include and reach out for that diversity, but, of course, I do recognize that this is but a small sampling of outlooks. My hope is that this book will be enlightening, educational, thought-provoking, and entertaining, as well as a call to action.
While it does not necessarily offer any easy, quick, or complete solutions to the complex, multifaceted questions of how we can help women move into more positions of influence and leadership, my hope is that it will help to identify some of the obstacles so that we can at least be aware of them—and be woken up, as my daughter’s question did for me, to being proactive, rather than simply accepting the current state of affairs as “just how it is.” It will take long, engaged, thoughtful conversation and effort, from both men and women, to move our systems and culture along.
I thank all of the remarkable people in this book for being a part of this literary roundtable and for the meaningful work they do on the many prongs of these issues. And, since I would still like to include so many viewpoints and ongoing resources, a portion of the proceeds of this book will go toward continuing the conversation and community around women’s leadership at the 18-year-old women’s website and nonprofit I run, Feminist.com. I hope you will join me in supporting this movement, and I hope by the time my daughter has her own children (if that is her choice!), we will live in a world where having a woman president seems not like an unachievable and daunting milestone, but instead like one that girls everywhere can aspire to and reach, if that is their destiny and calling.
Excerpt from What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power, by Marianne Schnall. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.