Can a Woman Become President of the United States?

Well sure, many would say.  After all, in this election cycle and the last, a viable woman candidate emerged—one a Democrat and the other a Republican-to run for the presidency.  But, it’s worth thinking about the question beyond whether a woman can raise money to campaign for the presidency of the United States or whether she can win a primary.  Can she become a major party’s nominee?  Unlike peer Western countries, like the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel (despite its location, Israel is counted as a Western economy), and Germany, or developing economies, such Brazil, Argentina, and India, we have no past and no foreseeable future with a woman as president or prime leader.

To be clear, there are at least 20 women currently serving as the prime leader of countries around the world—Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Argentina, Australia, Thailand, Liberia, Kosovo, and Brazil, to name a few.  Nor is it a new phenomenon for some nations to elect women as their primary political leaders—twice in the last 25 years, Ireland has elected women presidents and within that time Switzerland has been led by three different women.  Over 40 years ago Soong Ching-ling served as co-chairman of China and 30 years ago, the men and women in Iceland elected Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who served for over 15 years.  So, if they can do it, surely Americans can rally around a woman candidate all the way to the White House.  Right?  Eventually, yes, but who knows when?

The reality is, we’re not moved by what happens in other countries.  We can call that American exceptionalism, meaning we’re special and we have our own way of doing things.  This is certainly a view embraced by our Supreme Court and from time to time Congress too.  But, it also seeps into our national consciousness—we weren’t the first nation to abolish slavery—it took us a while … we were special.  Equally there isn’t a great record of women’s suffrage prior to the 1800s, only a few states within the U.S. allowed women the right to vote prior to 1920, despite the fact that other nations were moving in that direction (as early as 1718, women were casting votes in Finland).

That brings me to Michele Bachmann.  Earlier today, Bachmann pulled out of the Republican race for the presidency.  Two years ago, she began campaigning for the POTUS office, hoping to become the first woman to be elected to that post.  More adept at answering questions about the literature she reads (i.e. she could name several newspapers without claiming such inquiries were “gotcha” interrogations) than Sarah Palin, she was an early Tea Party favorite.  As it turned out, she was more like the flavor of the week, with Herman Cain the follow-up taste.  After coming in last in the Iowa Caucus, Bachmann decided to surrender the field to the boys.

Now, Bachmann was not a favorite of mine, and when not making downright silly statements (“I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter”), she made outrageous ones: “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.”

But, was she any less informed or more outrageous than the male contenders?   Not at all.  Consider Rick Perry, a man who struggles to name members of the U.S. Supreme Court and whose gaffes at the Republican debates make ALL the other candidates seem more convincing as presidential material.

“I will tell you: It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the … what’s the third one there? Let’s see. … OK. So Commerce, Education and the … The third agency of government I would — I would do away with the Education, the … Commerce and — let’s see — I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

Or think about Herman Cain’s run for the presidency and how the Tea Party swiftly abandoned Michele and took up Cain as their guy after his pithy “Nine, Nine, Nine,” rhetoric caught on like a dance tune.   If it weren’t for the bounty of women claiming intimate relationships with him or sexual harassment, he would likely have remained in the race.  It’s not worth describing the remainder of the field—equally bizarre.

But, Michele’s slide from the embrace of the Republican field to the bottom of the pile raises the question about when a woman is viable for the White House and what it takes for Americans to really rally behind a woman.   Certainly, it’s not in the cards now, but when will it be?

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