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10 “Must Haves” for the Woman Who Would Be President

| December 2, 2011

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a "presidential woman"

Hillary Clinton proved that a woman can be a top presidential contender, but 2012 will not be the year that particular glass ceiling is broken. The authors of a forthcoming book, Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced, explore why.

As the list of presidential contenders thins, it is likely that the 2012 U.S. presidential final will be an all-male affair. Our forthcoming book invites the audience to consider women with qualifications to serve as president and explores reasons, few of them reasonable, why they have been dismissed as presidential contenders.

We identify the Top Ten “Must Haves” for women who want to be president—qualities that draw voters to women candidates, even those who might not be demanding in the same way of men seeking the highest office.

1. Credentials Women not only have to have government experience but successful campaigning experience. And, as the case of Elizabeth Dole suggests, that campaigning experience must be on your own behalf, not for your spouse. A future female president should have foreign policy experience. Despite the presence of numerous women leaders internationally, such as Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s or Angela Merkel today, the U.S. electorate still tends to see the conduct of foreign affairs as male-defined.

2. Fundraising Women who are being considered for the presidency must have the ability to raise the money necessary for a long, expensive campaign. Historically women have found it difficult to garner the financial support men have. Hillary Clinton in 2008 certainly raised a significant sum as has Michelle Bachmann for the 2012 campaign. No one doubts Sarah Palin's ability to garner financial support. So, perhaps, this “barrier” is coming down.

3. Charisma Women who are being considered for the presidency must be charismatic or, at least, dynamic. Lack of charisma is more of a disqualifying trait for women, such as Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, than it has been for men, such as Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush. A restrained style may well be highly effective if one is trying to either court business or work with the opposition, but that style does not attract media beyond state lines. Women without the requisite panache fall below the radar.

4. Assertiveness A woman, however, cannot push that dynamism too far, for, fourth, women who are being considered for the presidency must not be overly assertive or aggressive. Should they do so, they run the risk of being dismissed with the b____ word. That has been a fate suffered by Barbara Mikulski and Nancy Pelosi. That was the fate that Hillary Clinton constantly back-pedaled from in her 2008 campaign. There's a marked difference in perspective between how male and female aspirants are viewed: aggressive males are said to be in need of reining in their style when it truly becomes uncivil; aggressive females are said to be inherently nasty should they state their views strongly too often.

5. An Attractive Appearance Women who are being considered for the presidency must be attractive and, furthermore, must expect their appearance to be front-and-center in the media coverage of a campaign. Dianne Feinstein’s expensive attire and “Snow White” hairstyle; Barbara Mikulski’s short stature and “roly-poly” physique; Kathleen’s Sebelius’ dress color and toenail polish; Nancy Pelosi’s mauve designer suits and cosmetic surgery—commentators will focus on all such attributes. Men running for the presidency will not draw comparable attention; furthermore, physical traits will rarely disqualify them. Some might note their height (Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis), their weight (Chris Christie), and their suit color (Al Gore), but these traits will not be what media coverage notes first and, then, dwells upon.

6. The Right Look Women must look the part. The problem here, of course, is that the part has always been played by a male. Thus, to look the part—especially in its commander-in-chief facet, a woman must look masculine but, of course, not too masculine as to be unattractive. Women are then trapped in a double bind to add to the five in Kathleen Jamieson's book—between looking presidential, defined in our culture in masculine terms, and looking attractive, defined in our culture in feminine terms for women. Nancy Kassebaum, a senator from Kansas for two decades, noted that she wasn't tall enough to look the part; Barbara Mikulski, who is even shorter, may have felt the same.

7. The Dennis Thatcher Spouse Women who are aspiring to the presidency must have no “spouse problem.” The problem might be a spouse whose business or political dealings are questionable. Dianne Feinstein had questions raised about the former; Olympia Snowe, the latter. The problem might be a spouse who cannot be successfully scripted. Elizabeth Dole experienced this difficulty; and so did Hillary Clinton. The problem might even be the absence of a spouse as is the case for Barbara Mikulski and Linda Lingle, former governor of Hawaii. An aspiring woman’s spouse must—it seems—be either well in the background or, better yet, deceased.

8. Heterosexual Orientation At least for the present, women who are aspiring to the presidency should be heterosexual. On this point, there may be little sexism, for the door is probably as closed to a gay man as to a lesbian woman.

9. Restraint When It Comes to Playing the Gender Card Women now aspiring to the presidency must remember that their gendered struggle resonates with only a part of their audience. Although there still exist many barriers impeding women’s movement in life and in the professions, we believe that this perspective doesn’t resonate in the same way with younger women who outnumber their male counterparts in universities and law schools and have not experienced the ground breaking “firsts” of the baby boomer generation.

10. Rhetorical Finesse A woman aspiring to the presidency must possess considerable rhetorical finesse. Her phrases will be scanned for the words that suggest high seriousness in a world with major economic and international problems. Rick Perry’s silly gesticulations or Herman Cain’s hat-wearing may make it to late night comedian routines, but they won’t immediately disqualify them. Women candidates who don’t exhibit brainpower, rhetorical constraint and likability simultaneously and consistently will be disqualified as not presidential material.

When we have a critical mass of women willing to run, possessing the qualities above, America will have a woman president.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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