With polls showing Hillary Clinton holding a formidable lead over all other potential candidates for president in 2016, a press conference to promote the idea of a woman president seems a little behind the news, a treasured dream catching up with a new reality, or perhaps a stalking horse for Clinton.
Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which raises money and works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, said she has no inside knowledge of what Clinton is likely to do, but there is widespread acceptance of a woman as president, and 72 percent of voters surveyed think it’s likely to happen in 2016. While Clinton gets mentioned most, there’s no guarantee she will run, which is why Emily’s List wants to “ignite the conversation” around an idea whose time has come, and build a movement that Clinton or another in the sisterhood can inherit.
Ellen Malcolm, who founded Emily’s List in her basement 28 years ago, looked on like a proud parent as pollsters unveiled the latest numbers showing overwhelming support among voters across gender and party lines for a “generally well-qualified woman.” Those numbers were always strong, says Malcolm, but when voters were asked about their friends and neighbors supporting a woman, they weren’t so sure. These days, there’s no hesitation, the country is ready. “What a waltz!” Malcolm exclaims. Twenty years ago, no pollster would have predicted the dramatic shift in attitudes toward a woman president, or marriage equality, or even immigration, that we see today among the general public, says pollster Lisa Grove, who adds one caveat: voters still think it’s harder for a woman than a man to get elected president.
Malcolm recalled the days when women’s groups had to look outside of the political arena for role models that could be taken seriously as presidential candidates. “Remember Sally Ride for president?” she asked. The first American woman in space, Ride, who died last year, was periodically courted to run, but valued her private life too much to get into politics. The paucity of women on the front lines of politics was evident when Emily’s List was founded in 1985. The previous year, women’s groups had pressured Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee, to name a female vice-presidential candidate. When he chose New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running-mate, critics skewered him as weak for bowing to a special-interest group, namely women.
The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost 49 states to President Reagan, and the cause of a woman on the ticket in the No. 2 spot (never mind the top spot) was set back for a few decades. Truth is, there weren’t many credible nominees. The Democrats did not elect their first woman to the Senate (without having a husband die first) until Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski in 1987. Now there are 20 women (16 Democrats, four Republicans) there, a growing bench to choose from. Elizabeth Dole was a perennial favorite back in the day as a potential presidential candidate on the Republican side, but when she finally mounted her own run in 1999, she fared poorly, had trouble raising money, and dropped out before the primaries.
Marie Wilson, who founded the White House Project in 1998, commissioned a survey of women who could lead the country. She sought a diverse group of women from the corporate world and the military in addition to politics, and she included the first black female astronaut, Mae Jamison. “We couldn’t get permission from Oprah—we tried,” she told The Daily Beast. The results were featured on the cover of Parade magazine in 1999. Some of Wilson’s colleagues in the women’s movement warned that she would embarrass these women by touting them for president. Why? “Because people will think they’re ambitious,” she was told.
For the record, none of the women were embarrassed, and several prominent figures who did not make the list called Wilson to ask why they weren’t included. “They were not amused,” she says.
This is a dance that’s been going on with the American people for some time, and what’s made the difference is Hillary Clinton. “These last four years have sealed the deal,” says Wilson. There’s credit to go around, more women on the Supreme Court, more women in top jobs, three female secretaries of State before John Kerry was sworn in this year. Still, it’s the visual image that sticks of Clinton meeting with presidents and prime ministers all around the world, and looking like she belongs. “This is mostly embodied in the person of Hillary Clinton. She frames the discussion,” says Wilson.
It was Clinton’s friend and mentor, Marion Wright Edelman, who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Because any discussion about a potential woman president is so deeply associated with Clinton—her persona, her performance, her resilience in the face of adversity, both professional and personal—that’s why a broader perspective is needed. Emily’s List may appear for the moment as though it is riding on Hillary’s coattails, but a much bigger conversation is needed, and they’re getting it started. Wilson points out that President Barbie, which she pushed Mattel to create, has been in the field, running at the nursery-school level, for more than a decade, preparing the ground. Women are ready, the country is ready, and that was the message of the press conference. The opportunity is there.