In my new book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power, I interview some of the most influential journalists, activists, artists, politicians, and thought leaders of today about how to get a woman into the White House. From talking to a range of people including Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof, Melissa Etheridge and Olympia Snowe, I learned that there are many different things we could be doing to help chart the conditions for electing a woman president.
As you might imagine, Hillary Clinton’s name came up fairly frequently in the interviews, having made a historic bid for the presidency in 2008 and now as the assumed Democratic front-runner for 2016. As a hopeful sign of the times, when I interviewed Gloria Steinem for an article at CNN in 2011, she told me that even though she supported Hillary in the last election, she had felt “it was too soon for a woman to win.” When I interviewed her this past year for my book, Gloria expressed to me that she now felt optimistic that America is indeed ready, “thanks in large part to the many courageous women in politics, but especially Hillary because she was so visible in 2008. And since then, as secretary of state, I think she’s helped to change people’s expectations.”
While the people I spoke with were generally optimistic that the U.S. is ready to elect a woman president and that we've certainly made some progress since Hillary’s 2008 bid, they also made it clear that if Hillary or any other woman candidate were to run in 2016, she would still be up against some hurdles. With that in mind, here are four things we can do in 2014 to move us closer to the milestone of electing our first female president - and supporting women leaders in all sectors of society.
1. Monitor the portrayal of women in the media: There was consensus that the often negative portrayal of women in the media—and the sexist coverage of women politicians and women leaders—impacts not only women's self-perception but how men too view women, and studies show it also affects how people vote. As Paley Center CEO Pat Mitchell told me, “As consumers we can do one big thing: we can insist that the press cover a woman’s campaign in the same way as a man’s. And when they don’t . . . we can insist, ‘I’m not reading that paper anymore, I’m not going to that website, I’m not going to listen to that newscast until you give that woman candidate the same kind of fair and accurate coverage.’”
Says Feministing.com founder and author Jessica Valenti, “We have to start with building up confidence and just getting women to want to put their names in the hat, but there also needs to be a change in the media conversation, as well, around women leaders. If a woman runs for office, you can count how many times their outfits or their hair are mentioned or, as with Hillary Clinton, the way her voice sounds. The things that we focus on in this culture are completely different, so we also have to make sure that we’re holding media accountable in the way that they’re treating women leaders.”
2. Support women in the workplace: Being a female politician trying to juggle work and family life is particularly challenging, a problem most working women also face. Many interviewees not only talked about the need for better policies supporting working women--such as family leave, better child care, and pay equity--but also the need to help men break out of their own stereotypical roles, so they too can share in the responsibilities of taking care of the home and family. As Sheryl Sandberg told me, "Men need to do more childcare and housework. We need to get to equality in the home. We cannot have equality in the office until we have equality in the home.”
Former Senator Olympia Snowe, acknowledged the hardships that many working women and families face, which was one of the reasons she told me that during her many years as a senator she worked for “affordable, accessible, quality childcare.” She reflected, "This whole juggling work and family, it's a difficult endeavor day-to-day…And is there adequate childcare? That makes a profound difference in the working lives of women and, yes, men. Ultimately the way to allay the fears of someone who's going to work, in any event, let alone running for public office, is to know that they have the ability to provide that kind of support to their children and to their families."
3. Encourage women as leaders: An important part of the change that is needed is to empower women and girls to see themselves as leaders and as agents of change in the world — and to not shy away from using their voices to advocate for what they believe in. Says Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, "It starts young. Girls are discouraged from leading at an early age. The word ‘bossy’ is largely applied to girls, not boys. I think we need to expect and encourage our girls and women to lead and contribute." Miss Representation filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom shared this telling statistic: “At the age of seven, like 30 percent across the board, boys and girls want to be president. And then at the age of thirteen, the numbers completely skew. You have one girl for every nine guys that want to be president.” Siebel Newsom believes the reason for that drop-off is that, “At ages ten to twelve, girls learn patriarchy. They learn their place in the world. They learn that there isn’t a seat for them at the table, that they aren’t the natural born leaders. That’s not truthful, but that’s what our society has constructed.” She feels the message we need to relay to girls is this: “You have a responsibility to all of us. We need your help. I think girls and women are our heroes and they need to start seeing themselves as our heroes and to come help us out of the mess that we’re in.”
MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry, who is also a professor of political science at Tulane University, told me, “I am constantly telling the women in my classes that they should consider running for office, mostly because what we know is that when men are talented and when men are smart and when men show some leadership, it’s hard for them to even get to college without someone, at some point, asking them, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about running for office? Man, you would be a great president.’ Even as little tiny boys, right? ‘I bet you’ll be president someday.’ It turns out that we don’t have those same kinds of standard messages for girls. So if a woman is very talented and can remember people’s names and she shows a lot of interest in politics, we tend to say things like ‘Good job’ or ‘Here’s an A on your paper,’ but we don’t tend to say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about running for office?’ Some of it is just the very basics of being recruited.”
4. Become an active, informed citizen: There are numerous ways we can all be a part of the change that is needed by supporting candidates and causes we believe in and getting involved. Gloria Steinem told me, "It means recognizing that the voting booth is the only place on Earth in which everybody’s equal—so, using it. We’re still not doing so well in percentages of who votes." Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi advocates we use our voices to push for campaign finance reform. “The environment I would like to see is one where the role of money is reduced and the level of civility is heightened. If you have less money and more civility, you will have more women. And that’s what we have to do: create our own environment. We’ve been operating in an environment that has not been friendly to the advancement of women, especially now that it’s become so harsh and so money driven.”
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand delivers this broader call to action to all women: "Do whatever you can do; it’s a question of: Are you voting? Are you being heard? Are there issues that you care about that you could advocate for and let your representatives know how important they are to you? Would you ever consider running for office? Really making that request of women’s participation across the board… We need to actually invite women to come to the table, both in corporate America and in political life, because we need their thoughts, views, and guidance on these very important decisions that our country is making.”
Find out what else these and other thought leaders had to say about what it will take to make a woman president by visiting www.womanpresidentbook.com.