Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why Don't We Have More Female Presidential Candidates?

I was listening to NPR last summer and a female US Congressperson was talking about her experience forming an exploratory committee for a presidential campaign in the 90s. Apparently she decided not to run because, according to her committee, America was not willing to accept a female president.

Hmm...well maybe that's true. If we go back and look at history, we see that there has never been a female president. Perhaps the exploratory committee took a long hard look at the pattern and at great expense delivered the report "History shows that Americans only elect men. Specifically white. 19% of the time for somebody named Bush, Adams, Johnson, or Roosevelt."

But wait a minute, how often have we been given a chance? How often have I had the chance to cast my vote for a female presidential candidate, even in a primary?

Since women achieved the right to vote in the 1920s, there have been fewer than 30 female candidates, Wikipedia lists 24 and the Center For American Woman and Politics lists 12 (with some overlap between the lists). And in most cases they ran for such powerful parties as the Socialist Party and the Workers World other words, usually parties where Nobody has a chance to win, male or female.

There have only been a small handful of female candidates prior to the 2008 elections who ran under a potentially viable party.

So perhaps exploratory committees looked at polls when deciding that a woman could not be elected president. According to the PEW Research Center, in 1969 a slim majority, 53%, said they would vote for a female candidate. Compare that to 2008 when the poll numbers show that 88% would vote for a female candidate. And since 1998, state gubernatorial election data shows female candidates faring BETTER when pitted against a male candidate, gathering on average 55% of the female vote and 47% of the male vote. Female Democratic candidates won 51% of the time while Male Democratic candidates won 47% of the time.

Today we seem to have Much Better numbers in favor of a female candidate. But that 53% willingness to vote for a woman in 1969 is telling. Women clearly had an up-hill battle.

But look at this...

By the mid 1970's,
America's professed willingness to vote for a female president jumped, and in 1972 America saw three female presidential candidates. Three! Incidentally, the acceptance of black candidates rose at a pace on par with the acceptance of female candidates.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we have a woeful ratio of female to male candidates. Indeed, we're lucky to have had a female candidate every election year for the past few cycles, but always with a small showing. One might imagine the ratios would at least mirror that of the US Senate ratios of male to female (83% male to 16.3% female). But they don't even come close.

For whatever reason, women don't run for US President as often as men. The appearance of women in the race shows our system isn't shutting them out with extreme prejudice. Certainly, female candidates face intense pressure, scrutiny, and ridicule. Though I think about Benazir Bhutto who became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and ran for the post again despite being aware of the very real possibility of being killed. Her final fate makes rhetoric and ridicule seem tame by comparison. Benazir Bhutto was killed December 27, 2007.

If ridicule is the worst and most likely fate of a female candidate in the United States, it's a small price to pay to make America a more fair and equal society. Women...just give us the chance to vote for you. We may not. But with every wave, America becomes more willing to embrace the inevitable, that our society will be governed by the full spectrum of its citizenry.

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