Probing Question: Can a woman be elected president?

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Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun. These women all have one thing in common—they made unsuccessful bids for the Presidency of the United States. So, after 43 white males presiding over the White House, is the country ready to elect a female president?

Possibly, says Nichola D. Gutgold, associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley.

While countries like Ireland, Great Britain and Germany have already elected female leaders, the United States has yet to have a woman come close to winning the presidency. Gutgold thinks this has had more to do with issues other than gender.

"When a female candidate runs who has lots of money, runs a very good campaign, and is able to articulate her vision for the country in a way that resonates with voters—and when the time is right for her party to get elected—she will win. It's really not a gender thing as much as many would like to believe."

"When we look at the few female candidates of our past," she notes, "there were problems within their campaigns that made them unelectable, beyond the novelty of their being female." Gutgold cites Shirley Chisholm's 1972 campaign as an example: Chisholm raised little money and had little backing in her party. Both of these shortcomings were more decisive than the fact of her being a woman, Gutgold argues.

She points to women moving into other leadership roles within the U.S. government, including Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Gutgold thinks these are important steps toward a female president.

"I think it's inching us forward," she comments. "When Pelosi brings out her huge family and talks about her grandmother role, it helps the nation accept the different dimensions of female candidates' lives. We see that a woman can be a mother and a leader."

With the 2008 Presidential campaign already in high gear, the idea of a woman running the country is starting to become more of a possibility, and perhaps more palatable to voters. Gutgold thinks Hillary Clinton has done a good job of presenting herself as a presidential candidate, not a female presidential candidate—an important distinction.

"I would say that Hillary Clinton's campaign for president is the very first campaign by a woman that is without a lot of female candidate baggage," she says. "I'm not reading a lot about what she's wearing, I'm not reading a lot about how historical it's going to be if she wins. I'm reading about her views."

Some have argued that a female presidential candidate would have to act more "hawkish" to overcompensate for the perception of being "soft" on foreign policy. Gutgold argues it's a balance of toughness and compassion that makes a good leader, regardless of gender. "I think about former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson—she has that ethos. It's just a skill set that is not gender specific," she says.

Gutgold points out that, for her, just the fact that a woman is running for president doesn't make her the right candidate."It has to be the right woman," she says. "People think that because I write about women in politics, I would be content with any woman becoming president. Wrong! It has to be the right person. And I think when it's the right person for the majority of Americans, that person will get elected."

Nichola D. Gutgold, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley and is author of the book Paving the Way for Madam President. She can be reached at dgn2@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 17, 2007