Last week there was a virtual coup in the realm of global women’s leadership. Chile elected its first female president, Michelle Bachelet. Liberia swore in its first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who incidentally is also the African continent’s first female president. Meanwhile, here at home in the United States, Geena Davis, America’s first female president on television won a Golden Globe for her role as President McKenzie Allen on ABC’s Commander in Chief.
Female heads of state are not a 21st century invention. For years, we have seen some women such as Margaret Thatcher in England, Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Butto in Pakistan, and Angela Merkel in Germany, ascend through political dynasties, monarchies or the parliamentary system. These women have broken barriers and often been inspirational leaders, but they are among an extremely small and elite group. Only 11 of the 193 nations, including Liberia and Chile now, have a woman in the top position. The glaring omission from this list is the United States, indisputably the world’s leading democracy.
The recent elections of Bachelet in Chile, Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Merkel in Germany serve as a wake-up call to the United States and may hold the most important lessons for us about when and why a woman may be president here soon.
These women, with no political coattails on which to ride, have broken through the ultimate glass ceiling and deemed effective leaders by demonstrating toughness and competence without losing their appeal—the traditional barrier to women’s political leadership at the highest levels. Bachelet and Johnson-Sirleaf endured painful experiences, like imprisonment and exile, and transformed them into a passion to unify and bring their countries to a new era of peace and prosperity.
Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist, known as the “Iron Lady” from her years opposing the policies of Charles Taylor and two periods of imprisonment, overcame 22 candidates and conquered what many considered to be her main opponent, a male-dominated culture. In her inaugural address, she promised her country “far-reaching reforms — constitutional reform, land reform, judicial reform, civil-service reform, devolution of power,” which is no small feat for a country that is deeply divided after 14 years of civil war.
Bachelet, a 54-year-old physician and single mother, won 53% of the vote in ultra-conservative Chile. The former physician and single mother, who was tortured and imprisoned by Chile’s former military junta, is the first woman to be elected president of a major Latin American country who did not come to power because of marital ties. “Who would have said, 10, 15 years ago that a woman would be elected president," she said as she laid out her agenda to address a range of social issues, including poverty, public heath, housing and education.
Merkel, born behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany, has been in office less than four months and has already shown her toughness and authority by saying that Germany will not be intimidated by Iran’s refusal to disarm their nuclear program and calling on Bush to close Guantanamo Bay.
According to a Roper Public Affairs poll, nearly 80 percent of Americans are ready for a female commander in chief. The poll also revealed an interesting shift in the public’s perception of women in non-traditional roles. Over half felt that a woman would do as well as a man in foreign policy, homeland security and the economy. This last new mark of acceptance probably owes a great deal to the visible female national security leaders of the Clinton and Bush administrations, with both Condoleezza Rice and Madeline Albright serving as Secretaries of State.
Perhaps we stand on the brink of a turning point here at home. Laura Bush has called on Condoleezza Rice to run, and there is a widespread expectation that Hillary Clinton will as well. We may soon have an opportunity to see what happens when two women - who have proven their ability and authority - compete for the presidency. Their simultaneous candidacies would begin to normalize females in the race and would allow us to choose a leader based strictly on her ability, and not gender.
Unfortunately, the closest we have come to seeing a female commander in chief is on television. Yet the possibility is far from fiction. If the elections of Bachelet, Johnson-Sirleaf, and Merkel serve as real examples, the international acceptance of women leaders winning national races is clearly gaining momentum. The question is whether the United States will continue to lag behind, watching the rest of the world define 21st century leadership or if instead, or if instead, we will finally live up to the true spirit and meaning of democracy.
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).