Campaign Is On for Female Presidential Candidates

As politicians look to the 2004 presidential campaign, many women are beginning to wonder why they don't see someone like themselves jockeying for position. Their absence could change, however, if the public perceives female candidacies as normal.

Marie Wilson

(WOMENSENEWS)-When Margaret Chase Smith, the Republican senator from Maine, ran for president in 1964, she asked, in a letter to a supporter, “Is a woman acceptable?”

Right now, none of the candidates lining up to run for president 40 years later will need to ask that question. Current potential Democrats for the 2004 ticket are Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards and John Kerry. No challengers-male or female-on the Republican side are in sight, though the running-mate slot might open up.

“We don't have a woman running for president because we don't have a large enough pool of women holding statewide offices,” said Ann Lewis, national chair of the Women's Vote Center at the Democratic National Committee.

Lewis is encouraged, however, that 23 women are running for governor in 19 states this year. She says these races are a big first “step toward electing a woman president.”

“Governors are more likely to be elected president than senators,” Lewis said. “After all, what do governors do? They appoint cabinets, set budgets, negotiate with legislatures and veto legislation.”

Other experts say women need to start routinely running for president to make voters, donors, party officials and the media see these campaigns as the norm rather than the exception. To encourage this perception, the White House Project, an organization dedicated to getting a woman elected president regardless of political affiliation, is launching a campaign this weekend called “Top of the Ticket” to encourage women-not one woman, but a number of women-to join the pack heading to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries in 2004 and beyond.

“When it's one woman, her campaign is about her hair, her hemlines and her husband,” said the White House Project President Marie Wilson. “When it's two women running against one another, it's about a catfight.

“But if we get three or four women out there, then it gets to be normal, and we can go straight to talking about foreign policy,” she said.

‘The Country Is Ready'

Wilson says the time is right to push the idea of a woman presidential candidate because the United States now has a critical mass of seasoned, well-known women in Congress and in other influential offices. “The country is ready,” she said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, has said she's interested in running for president, and, while her name is not well-known nationally, most men who run for president are not initially household names. In fact, a relatively obscure governor from Arkansas became the country's most recent two-term president.

“In this, as in many other non-traditional roles, women have to pass a higher threshold to achieve credibility,” Lewis said.

On the Republican side, while the ticket is officially closed, Wilson and others are hoping a woman might be considered if, for health reasons, Vice President Cheney decides to forego a second term. Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey's former governor, or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is arguably the most prominent person at President Bush's side regardless of gender, could give the Republicans a chance to match the Democrats' historic 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro.

Republican Elizabeth Dole, now running for Senate in North Carolina, cited lack of money as the sole reason she abandoned her short-lived presidential campaign in 1999, but she insisted at the time that “the country is ready” to vote for a woman.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, also has expressed an interest in being president some day. She has talked about the difficulty in achieving the right “match” between presidential and vice-presidential nominees. Hutchison was immediately ruled out of consideration for the No. 2 spot in 2000 because the ticket already had a Texan in George W. Bush. Similarly, the Democrats are unlikely to consider New Hampshire Gov. Jean Shaheen for the top of the ticket because her state does not carry enough Electoral College votes in the general election.

Men who have run for president “have pretty much bluffed their way through the requirements” of being campaign-tested, winning important primaries and assuring a long-term cash flow, said Carolanne Curry, a founding board member of the Women's Campaign School at Yale and head of First Woman President, a nonprofit group working to elect a female president by 2016. “Women still think these requirements need to all be in place before they run . . . Yet we absolutely know there are a sufficient number of qualified women who by their experience, skills and knowledge, are capable of leading this country as president.”

Poll Shows Americans Would Be Comfortable with a Woman President

A national poll released in May suggested that most voters are ready for a woman in the White House. Three-fourths of Americans said they are “personally comfortable” with the idea of a female president, and 83 percent said they are comfortable with a woman as vice president, according to the random telephone poll conducted for the White House Project by RoperASW. Perhaps the greater acceptability of a woman in the No. 2 spot explains why former President Bill Clinton recently said his wife Hillary, the New York senator and former first lady, would make a good vice president-even though she has repeatedly denied any presidential ambition.

A few women, such as Lenora Fulani, the Reform Party candidate known for her controversial mix of left-wing politics and support for right-wingers like Pat Buchanan, have run for president as outsiders. But they have failed to attract the credibility, votes and attention won by mavericks such as Ross Perot, Alan Keyes and Ralph Nader.

Perot, who most recently ran in the 1996 race, as well as Keyes and Nader, who ran high-profile races in 2000, successfully used the election process to publicize their agendas. They were undeterred by long odds or lack of political experience. In addition, successful businessmen are often elected to top posts without previously holding office-men such as New Jersey Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine and New York City's Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

“The country projects entitlement on these men,” said the White House Project's Wilson.

Some believe there are also women outside the political establishment who could mount attention-getting campaigns, even if they can't make it to the finish line.

“People have talked about Oprah,” says Robin Gerber, a senior fellow at the University of Maryland's The James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and author of a book due out this fall, “Leadership: The Eleanor Roosevelt Way.” Gerber recommended retired Army Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy and former astronaut Mae Jemison in a recent USA Today Op-Ed piece that encouraged a female candidacy, and she contended in an interview that there would be tremendous value in having these or any other women run, even if they lose.

“It makes it doable for other women to come behind them. We have to have the role models.”

Money Remains an Obstacle for Women Candidates

Not that Margaret Chase Smith, in being the first woman to run for president on a major party line, was the only one to do so. She was followed by Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Pat Schroeder in 1988, and Dole. But the financial requirements of running a modern campaign forced Dole out-as they did many male contenders-before she entered a single primary.

“No voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot for [Dole] as they did for Margaret Chase Smith 40 years ago,” said Gregory Gallant, who runs the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine. “Today, because of money, the dark horse candidate is sent directly to the glue factory.”

When Smith ran, she refused to accept campaign contributions as a protest against office-holders who spent too much time raising money and not enough time working for the voters. She garnered a quarter of the vote in the Illinois primary after spending a mere $100, and her name was entered into nomination at the Republican convention.

“We have lost ground in the effort to place a woman in the White House because the influence of money has maintained the closed club of those who can put together credible campaigns,” Gallant said. “Until this changes, Margaret Chase Smith's 1964 effort will remain a symbol of the obstacles women face.”

Beth J. Harpaz is the author of “The Girls in the Van: Covering Hillary,” a book about Hillary Clinton's historic Senate campaign, which Harpaz covered as a reporter for The Associated Press.

For more information:

The White House Project
Top of the Ticket Campaign:

Women's Campaign School at Yale University:

Margaret Chase Smith Library: