"Why haven't we ever had a woman president?" When my eight-year-old daughter posed this seemingly simple question to me, I--despite my many years of writing about gender issues and running a women's non-profit organization--found it somewhat difficult to answer. Her question is a good one. Many other nations have elected women presidents so why not the U.S.? What will it take to chart the conditions to achieve that milestone? So I set out to try to find the answers, through speaking to some of the most influential journalists, activists, politicians and thought leaders of today for my new book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power.
Many of the people I interviewed believe that the first step is to acknowledge the glaring inequities as a problem in the first place. Not only have we never had a woman in the Oval Office, but the United States currently ranks an embarrassing 77th in the world for the percentage of women in the national legislature--women make up only 18% of Congress. Even in the corporate world, women hold a mere 14% of executive officer positions and 16% of board seats. Half of our country's population is female, yet across almost all sectors of society women are not adequately represented when important decisions are being made. So in addition to seeing a woman reach that important milestone of becoming president, we need to see her be equally represented in other positions of leadership and influence in society. For this to happen, important cultural shifts need to take place.
Though the people I spoke with all had their own unique perspectives, there were several common and important themes that emerged. Here are five of the key points they shared about what we could do to get a woman in the White House and into more leadership positions--and why it's so important.
1. It's About Diversity and a Reflective Democracy
"It's about equality, but it's not just about equality. And the reason it's necessary to have more voices is because that strengthens the debate and it strengthens the decisions. It isn't that women coming in are better than men; they're different from men. And I always say the beauty is in the mix. To have diversity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result."
-- Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and former Speaker of the House (D)
"I think that the great strength that women bring when they move into senior levels of politics is not that they're more nurturing, caring, maternal figures, but that they will bring a certain level of different perspective, a different way of thinking, and that is just really valuable for all of us. This is not something that is going to benefit the women of America; it's something that's going to benefit all of America."
-- Nicholas Kristof, journalist, author, and Pulitzer Prize winner
"There's been a lot of research into how men and women lead differently. . . . But what I think is more powerful is you come from this outsider perspective, so when you take your seat at the table you don't necessarily ask all the same questions that other people would. You don't necessarily bring with you all the same people that other people would. You bring a different perspective, you bring a different background."
-- Soledad O'Brien, broadcast journalist
"Leadership in the future, whether it's male or female, I believe will start to come from a place of the idea of this great experiment called democracy . . . and to do that, we have to have it inside ourselves to know not to fear any diversity, but to be able to coexist with everything and anything, and that's where power and strength for communities and our country comes from."
-- Melissa Etheridge, singer-songwriter and activist
"I think we are more ready for [a woman president] than we think we are. . . .We are growing up out of the idiocies--racism and sexism and ageism and all those ignorances."
-- Maya Angelou, author and poet
2. We Need to Encourage Women and Girls to See Themselves as Leaders
"I think we've had, and we continued to have, this skewed concept of what leadership looks like. Leadership in our minds, unfortunately, has a gender and the gender is male. We see that not only in politics; we see it also in just about every kind of business and different aspects of our lives, even in environments where you are presumed to be very liberal and open to change. And there are all kinds of cultural factors. . . . I think we can't discount the role of culture in shaping our concept of what women can do."
-- Anita Hill, attorney and academic
"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. . . . It's the classic chicken-and-egg problem. We need more women leaders to show more women they can lead . . . and we need to show more women they can lead to get more women leaders. I think the first thing we need to do is decide that the status quo is not okay."
-- Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
"I think that it's very hard to change these entrenched notions and ideas that people have, particularly when men are controlling everything. I'm not surprised [that we haven't had a woman president]. Are you? I had an uncle who said to me, 'Why do you have to go to college? You're a girl. You're going to get married.' I actually heard those words."
-- Joy Behar, comedian, writer, actor, and former co-host of ABC's The View
"When it comes to politics, women have an internal glass ceiling. We stand as good a chance as a man to win a political race, but women don't want to run at the same rate as men do. . . . What stops us is fear."
-- Marianne Williamson, New York Times best-selling author, candidate for US House of Representatives
"I think the biggest challenge facing our nation, as far as more women getting involved in politics, is just the fact of women stepping up and being willing to run for office--to put everything on the line, to do the hard work, to go through the process itself, to risk winning or losing, and to step up to any kind of office, whether it's president or heading up a major corporation."
-- Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma and former US Representative (R)
3. Transform the Portrayal and Coverage of Women in the Media
"If the media shows women in a degrading, demeaning way, if violence is not taken seriously, if female candidates are covered in the context of how they look and what their hair is like and how they're dressed as opposed to how the male candidates are referred to, this has an impact on women and girls."
-- Jane Fonda, actress, activist, co-founder of the Women's Media Center
"I think we saw it in the response to Hillary in 2008 when big, grown-up, otherwise adult television commentators were saying things like, 'I cross my legs when I see her. She reminds me of my first wife, standing outside alimony court.' People who would not ever say such things, normally, were saying them about Hillary, because, I would guess, deep down they felt regressed by a powerful woman."
-- Gloria Steinem, journalist, feminist activist, and co-founder of the Women's Media Center
"The media have been more damaging, to a certain extent, than good. They can be good, yet it feels like it's taking too long to recognize how critical it is that the media celebrate the diversity of women--what diverse women look like, what they sound like, how they behave, their occupations, their statuses, et cetera. . . . I think we're in a rut in our country; I feel like we're stuck. We give so much power to beauty and not enough to talent and brains and leadership when it comes to women."
-- Jennifer Siebel Newsom, actor and documentary filmmaker
"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.' When are we going to start to take the power that we have as consumers of media and demand that it be different?"
-- Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media
4. Redefine Gender Roles and Support Working Families
"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."
--Olympia Snowe, former US Senator from Maine (R)
"We are stuck in our gender-specific roles. . . . 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. . . . I think equal maternity and paternity leave are hugely important. How are we going to teach men to be equals if the average woman takes three months and the average man takes two weeks? People forget that there's a huge gap in our coverage."
-- Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
"One of the most helpful things we can do long term is to make sure that kids have loving and nurturing male figures as well as female figures, and authoritative and expert female figures as well as male figures."
--Gloria Steinem, journalist and feminist activist, and co-founder of the Women's Media Center
5. We All Need to Become Actively Engaged Citizens and Be Leaders in Our Own Lives
"Why is it that men can't be recognized for being outstanding advocates for women? You don't need to be gay to be a great advocate for the LGBT community. In every aspect of life, you can maintain your empathy and your advocacy. . . . I think people are realizing that we're not two separate tribes, we're all in this together, and that men have a responsibility to be advocates for women, women advocates for men and boys."
-- Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California (D)
"There are multiple levels of leadership. Your leadership in your own family, your community, how you lead your life, how you present yourself in the world as one who is willing to use what you have to give to others. That to me is the defining meaning of what it takes to be a leader."
-- Oprah Winfrey, media icon and philanthropist
"I think the most important message for women is that they can do it. . . . And my call to action is very comprehensive: 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."
-- Kirsten Gillibrand, US Senator from New York (D)
"Not everybody needs to run for office. Some people need to be better advocates in their neighborhood. Some people need to be better advocates when it comes to fixing up schools and keeping the community thriving. Some people need to be better advocates in terms of the environment. So there are many ways to serve and many ways that we can fulfill our role as citizens of the United States of America."
-- Donna Brazile, author, academic, political analyst, and Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee
Find out what else these and other thought leaders had to say about women, leadership and power--and what it will take to make a woman president--by visiting www.womanpresidentbook.com.
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.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's new book is What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power published by Seal Press (November 2013). You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.