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Is The U.S. Poised For Its First Female President? Author Discusses Women In Politics

(via Flickr/marcn)

The United States Senate has 20 women in office, a mark never before reached prior to the last election. The top political seats in New Hampshire are all held by women: a female governor, two women in the U.S. Senate and women in both of the state's U.S. House seats.

Former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008 and there is talk of her running again in 2016. Are these signs that America could soon have a woman break the last glass ceiling to executive power or are there still obstacles in the way?

According to Farida Jalalzai, the answer to both questions is "yes." Jalalzai is an associate professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of Shattered, Cracked or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide.

Among the obstacles in the way is political gender bias. This country has both subtle and overt political gender bias, said Jalalzai.

"The subtle aspects would include gender stereotypes that maybe pigeonhole women to take more feminine roles, have more of a feminine style. Likewise we have a lot of perceptions of what a real man should be, what masculine attributes he should have. But when we look at political office, often though not always, the same kinds of traits and attributes that we might associate with political positions are more often those that are masculine," she said.

The more overt political gender bias often comes from the media, added Jalalzai. Women are more often critiqued on their appearance and asked about their family status.

The United States lags behind many countries who have now or have at one time had a woman as head of state. But nations worldwide have a long ways to go before achieving true political equality for women.

"We haven't really made as much progress as one would hope fifty years after the first woman gained a prime ministership," said Jalalzai.

While there are increasing numbers of women holding executive office, they remain in the same parts of the map, she said. And some countries, like the United Kingdom--which hasn't elected another female prime minister since Margaret Thatcher--fit the "one and they're done" category.

Other countries who have women in power have systems in place where the woman is chosen by her political party, not the general public. The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, for example, was elected by the German Parliament.

In some instances, the duties and authorities given to the position are relatively weak. Ireland, for example, has had female presidents, but the prime minister has more power there.

Historically, when women become heads of state they had family ties to the position. 

"Almost always, until really recently, the dominant presidents, the ones who've held the dominant power in a system, those who were elected by the popular vote, were wives or daughter of former presidents or opposition leaders," Jalalzai said.

Potential Female Contenders for President of the United States

If Hillary Clinton were to be elected president, she would follow that tradition. But Jalalzai thinks it is unlikely Clinton will run.

"In 2008 she was also heavily favored to gain the Democratic nomination," Jalazai said. "When you have the perception of your candidacy as the most viable you have nowhere to go but down."

One thing Hillary Clinton has done, said Jalazai, is made it imaginable for a woman to be president of the United States.

"She didn't win the candidacy, but no one would have said she wasn't viable," Jalalzai said.

Clinton also helped break gender stereotypes by showing an example of a specific woman with specific characteristics. Stereotypically, said Jalalzai, women are considered more compassionate and honest, while men are considered stronger. But in polls comparing Obama and Clinton, Obama was rated higher for compassion and honesty while Clinton was considered a stronger leader.

Despite believing Clinton won't run for president in 2016, Jalalzai does believe the way is being paved for a female presidency to become a reality. The rising number of women in legislature can be a strong indicator.

"Statistically there is a pipeline effect," said Jalalzai. "The greater the number of women in legislature, the greater the chance of a woman gaining executive office."

One reason for the connection is that by working in legislature women have the opportunity to build experience and reputation. Among those women currently in legislature is Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Jalalzai sees Warren as the most viable candidate for the first woman president currently on the horizon.

"Not now, but maybe in a few years once she's gained more experience in the Senate," said Jalalzai of Warren. "She's somebody who comes to mind as somebody who's also inspiring, because you want the whole package. She's very smart, elite-educated, very well-versed in matters that people are concerned about, when we're thinking about the economy, but also has that charisma."

Jalalzai discounted Kathleen Sebelius because she is not charismatic enough and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer because she is too polarizing.

In the past, when Jalalzai envisioned the first female president in the United States, she thought the candidate would be republican. But right now there are so few women in the republican party that it is difficult for her to choose a likely conservative candidate.

Beyond political affiliation though, what Jalalzai wants is an increase in the number of women running for president. Something she believes will be helped by the fact that Hillary Clinton has made it imaginable for a woman to be elected.

"What I'm really hoping for is that in an open election cycle next to seven men there would be maybe three women, and then maybe five," said Jalalzai.

Additionally, she hopes people develop an increased awareness of the individual characteristics of female candidates, to, as she put it, "separate the quality of candidate from the gender of the candidate."


St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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