Some polls predict that in the next 10 years, America will elect a woman president. With President Bush's second term less than a month old, political analysts are already speculating about 2008 campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). But with only a few notable exceptions, we've barely made it to the debates. In a political climate so focused on national security, the buzz behind the buzz is this: If a war hero like John Kerry can't win in wartime and can be damaged by the moniker "girlie man," can a woman ever win?
Perhaps it's only a matter of time. But will a woman Commander in Chief have to be a decorated soldier before we suspend collective disbelief that she'll keep us safe? In 1984, vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was asked during a debate if she could push the nuclear button. No male candidate has ever faced the same question. We should rethink our presidential litmus test and ask all candidates-male and female-"Will you have the guts to avoid pushing the nuclear button and avoid sending teenagers into an ill-conceived war?"
Clearly, not all men rush to war. President Kennedy, against the advice of generals, kept us out of a nuclear fight with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His stand showed more strength than a thousand warheads. A military hero, Kennedy understood that the battle for survival required patience, not testosterone. By ignoring a belligerent message from Soviet Premier Khrushchev and responding instead to the measured communication that preceded it, Kennedy allowed good reason to prevail over Cold War machismo.
From North Korea to Iran, we face many such scenarios. Our reliance on force is unbalanced, however. The 9/11 Commission Report asserts, "The first phase of our post- 9/11 efforts rightly included military to topple the Taliban and pursue Al Qaeda…. But long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy and homeland defense. If we favor one tool while neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our national effort."
Would we have heard more preventive strategies for Iraq if women held more positions in the war cabinet? It's not that women haven't been prominent war leaders. Former prime ministers Golda Meier of Israel and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain are frequently cited. Two American women have held the highest foreign policy posts; Madeleine Albright led the charge into Bosnia for President Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice did the same in Afghanistan and Iraq for President Bush. We have women generals, and one in seven soldiers in Iraq is female.
But beyond war-making, sustainable peace requires women's full participation. Unwisely, they've been largely excluded from formal efforts to solve seemingly endless struggles. Women are skilled at bridging ethnic, political, and cultural divides. Research indicates that they're generally more collaborative than men and thus more inclined toward consensus and compromise. They have their fingers on the pulse of their communities and serve as community leaders, with formal and informal authority. In addition, women are highly invested in preventing, stopping, and recovering from conflict because they're motivated to protect their children.
This isn't just an argument for a female president. It's an argument for shared authority at all levels, where men and women work side-by-side to create vibrant options. It's an argument for increasing the numbers of women at the top of government and industry-enough so that they can't be marginalized.
Suffrage activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton mused that it's a wonder the Republic has done as well as it has, since it has yet to use half its natural resources. A century later, Secretary Rice declared in her confirmation hearings, "the time is now." It's not only time for diplomacy but also for changing the status quo. And now is the time for women to step up to the plate and run for office. The time is now to capitalize on the strengths women bring to the table, their talents for community building, collaboration, and finding common ground.
This President's Day, let's take a moment to imagine America with a woman at the top. Then in that spirit, call a sister, best friend, or co-worker, and ask if she's ever thought of running for school board, Congress, or president. Encouragement drives courage. And her courage just might change history.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).