Girls Need to See Women Rise to Political Power
| January 12, 2009
In about a week, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States—entering the history books as the first African American to serve. Young girls know from Hillary Clinton’s near success at becoming the Democratic candidate that women can aspire to the highest office too, but studies show that their assurance could quickly fade.
On January 20, 2009, when a man is sworn in as president of the United States for the 65th time, it is important to remember the victories that women have made in politics.
In a focus group that I conducted for a book on the presidential race of Hillary Clinton, ten girls, age 11 to 14, discussed the subject of a woman president. With the example of Clinton’s bid fresh in their minds, these girls believed that “the only reason there hasn’t been a woman president yet is because not enough women have tried to be president.” Several participants said, “only Hillary Clinton has run.” When they were shown examples of others such as Shirley Chisholm and Elizabeth Dole, none of the girls had heard of those women or had read about them in newspapers or history books.
Asked if they thought that they could be president, the girls qualified their “yes” with, “if I got better grades” and tried really hard. But these girls were positive about women’s abilities. Several said that “women would make better presidents” because they are “smarter” and they “know how to do more things.” When asked how they know this, girls said, “because our mothers are able to do a lot.”
In a gender communication class I taught to a group of Philadelphia teachers, class members agreed that the more examples of leadership that children could be exposed to, the better. First grade teacher Lynetta Funchess suggested that offering students more examples of achievement would better equip them to interpret accomplishment. Students are quick to mention sports and movie stars when asked about extraordinary achievers. If they heard more about women and men successful, say, in medicine or business or politics, “we would change how the children think of greatness.”
In the year prior to Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s bids to become the Democratic nominee, with a specific focus on perceptions of discrimination, authors Rebecca S. Bigler, Andrea E. Arthur, Julie Milligan Hughes and Meagan M. Patterson found that one in four children believed it is illegal for women and minorities to hold the office of president. "[Children] have seen [the presidents] all over the media, on posters, in classroom history books," said Rebecca Bigler, "yet no one ever explains to them why they have all been white men. There is never a conversation about that so children start to come up with their own explanations."
One in three of the children attributed the lack of female, African-American and Latino presidents to racial and gender bias among voters. The same study found that girls who attributed the lack of female presidents to discrimination were more likely to report that they could not really become president, even if they were interested in doing so. (The study appeared in the December 2008 issue of Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy.)
Children’s perceptions certainly will be expanded when they see Barack Obama pictured on classroom posters and in history books. It is crucial also that Hillary Clinton’s close race for the Democratic nomination for president be recorded in school materials so that girls of all races can perceive themselves as potential leaders. With the appointment of women to high posts in the new administration, glass ceilings are shattering. But we cannot take for granted that little girls know they can grow up to be whatever they want.