What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?

Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power


By Marianne Schnall

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"I would love for my younger fans to read What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? by Marianne Schnall. It's a collection of interviews and essays by great women, including Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, and Melissa Etheridge. They will inspire you to become a better leader." —Beyoncé

Prompted by a question from her eight-year-old daughter during the 2008 election of Barack Obama, "Why haven't we ever had a woman president?", Marianne Schnall set out on a journey to find the answer. A widely published writer, author, and interviewer, and the Executive Director of Feminist.com, Schnall began looking at the issues from various angles and perspectives, gathering viewpoints from influential people from all sectors. 

What Will It Take to Make A Woman President? features interviews with politicians, public officials, thought leaders, writers, artists, and activists in an attempt to discover the obstacles that have held women back and what needs to change in order to elect a woman into the White House. With insights and personal anecdotes from Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof, Melissa Etheridge, and many more, this book addresses timely, provocative issues involving women, politics, and power. 

With a broader goal of encouraging women and girls to be leaders in their lives, their communities, and the larger world, Schnall and her interviewees explore the changing paradigms occurring in politics and in our culture with the hope of moving toward meaningful and effective solutions, and a world where a woman can be president.



THIS BOOK STARTED with a question. When Barack Obama was first elected, my family and I were talking about how wonderful it was to have our first African American president. My then-eight-year-old daughter, Lotus, looked at me through starry eyes and deadpanned this seemingly simple, obvious question: “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” It was a really good question, one that, despite having spent two decades running the women’s nonprofit website Feminist.com and writing about women’s issues, I found difficult to answer. But it is these types of questions, often out of the mouths of babes, that can wake us up out of a trance. Many inequities have become such a seamless part of our history and culture that we may subliminally begin to accept them as “just how it is” and not question the “why” or explore the possibility that circumstances could be different.

It does seem a bit crazy when you think of it: When so many other nations have women presidents, why doesn’t the United States? Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Great Britain three times. Argentina, Iceland, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Finland, Ireland, Liberia, Chile, and South Korea have elected female heads of state. Yet the United States, presumably one of the most progressive countries in the world, lags dismally behind. We have finally elected an African American president; when will we celebrate that same milestone for women?

The closest we have come to having a woman president was Hillary Clinton’s nearly successful primary campaign against Barack Obama in 2008. In Obama, she had a formidable opponent, one who also broke through important barriers. Though it was a tight, fascinating, and at times contentious race, Obama prevailed. As Hillary observed in her powerful concession speech, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.” She added, speaking to the emotional crowd gathered at Washington’s National Building Museum, “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time. That has always been the path of progress in America.”

Fast-forward a few years later to the 2011 primary season, when I was talking to an editor at CNN’s In America division about writing a piece for them. I was about to cover the Women’s Media Center awards, where I would be interviewing people like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington, and others, so I asked CNN if there were any questions in particular they wanted me to ask. They said they were interested in the attendees’ impressions of why women have gained such little momentum in Washington just four years after having a near presidential contender, and what we can do to get more women into the pipeline of political leadership. Taking that one step further, I decided to add a question related to my daughter’s query by asking, “What will it take to make a woman president?” That article wound up on the CNN home page and received hundreds of comments, both positive and negative. The popularity of the article made me realize how important and timely this topic really was, and that it was worth exploring even further.

So here it is: my journey to get answers to some of these questions through speaking to some of the most influential journalists, activists, politicians, and thought leaders of today. Why haven’t we had a woman president? What will it take? And why is it important? While I use a woman president as a symbol, this book is also about the broader goal of encouraging women and girls as leaders and change agents in their lives, their communities, and the larger world. It also explores the many changing paradigms occurring in politics and in our culture, which the recent election seems to confirm. I hope to spotlight these positive shifts, as well as identify where the remaining obstacles and challenges are, in hopes that by looking at these themes from so many sides and perspectives, we can move closer to meaningful and effective solutions.

Certainly, we need to imagine not only a world where a woman can be president, but one in which women are equally represented in Congress and many other positions of leadership and influence in our society. While it was history-making to have elected twenty women to the Senate in 2012, 20 percent is still far from parity. Women are 50 percent of the population, yet they occupy just a fraction of that in elected office. The United States currently ranks seventy-seventh on an international list of women’s participation in national government. And the numbers are not much better in the corporate world: a meager twenty-one of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and women hold about 14 percent of executive-officer positions and 16 percent of board seats. Women are in only about 5 percent of executive positions in the media. Across the board, women are rarely adequately represented at the tables where important decisions are being made.

Yet everywhere I look today, very promising campaigns and projects are emerging to help women attain positions of influence and leadership. A few years ago, I wrote an article about then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Women in Public Service Project, whose ambitious goal is global, political, and civic leadership of at least 50 percent women by 2050. I also interviewed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about her Off the Sidelines Project, which is “a nationwide call to action to get more women engaged . . . to enter political life and be heard on political issues.” And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, has certainly helped to spark a nationwide conversation and movement and an important debate over the factors impacting women’s leadership and advancement in the workplace.

When I first set out to create this book, I estimated that I might do twenty interviews. As it turns out, I more than doubled that number. And since these important topics of women, leadership, and power have come up frequently in so many of my past interviews with high profile figures, I decided to also include some of their insightful quotes on spreads interspersed throughout the book. Writing this book has indeed been a fascinating journey and adventure in and of itself, and has almost had a life of its own. I was so heartened and felt so supported by the many incredible people who not only granted me an interview for this book but also suggested others I should talk to, often giving me contact information or making introductions for me. From this response, I realized that this is a topic that is on everyone’s mind right now, and, as many of the people I interviewed—from Donna Brazile to Pat Mitchell—seemed to indicate, “now is the time.”

These are issues that I think benefit from a hashing-out of multiple perspectives: men’s, women’s, Republicans’, Democrats’, racial, and generational. I tried as best I could within the limited time, capacity, and access I had to include and reach out for that diversity, but, of course, I do recognize that this is but a small sampling of outlooks. My hope is that this book will be enlightening, educational, thought-provoking, and entertaining, as well as a call to action.

While it does not necessarily offer any easy, quick, or complete solutions to the complex, multifaceted questions of how we can help women move into more positions of influence and leadership, my hope is that it will help to identify some of the obstacles so that we can at least be aware of them—and be woken up, as my daughter’s question did for me, to being proactive, rather than simply accepting the current state of affairs as “just how it is.” It will take long, engaged, thoughtful conversation and effort, from both men and women, to move our systems and culture along.

I thank all of the remarkable people in this book for being a part of this literary roundtable and for the meaningful work they do on the many prongs of these issues. And, since I would still like to include so many viewpoints and ongoing resources, a portion of the proceeds of this book will go toward continuing the conversation and community around women’s leadership at the eighteen-year-old women’s website and nonprofit I run, Feminist.com. I hope you will join me in supporting this movement, and I hope by the time my daughter has her own children (if that is her choice!), we will live in a world where having a woman president seems not like an unachievable and daunting milestone, but instead like one that girls everywhere can aspire to and reach, if that is their destiny and calling.


“I am constantly telling the women in my classes that they should consider running for office, mostly because what we know is that when men are talented and when men are smart and when men show some leadership, it’s hard for them to even get to college without someone, at some point, asking them, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about running for office? Man, you would be a great president.’ Even as little tiny boys, right? It turns out that we don’t have those same kinds of standard messages for girls. So if a woman is very talented and can remember people’s names and she shows a lot of interest in politics, we tend to say things like ‘Good job’ or ‘Here’s an A on your paper,’ but we don’t tend to say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about running for office?”

MELISSA V. HARRIS-PERRY is host of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. She is also professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She previously served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Princeton University.

Harris-Perry is author of the well received new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes—invisible to many but painfully familiar to black women—profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Harris-Perry is a columnist for The Nation magazine, where she writes a monthly column also titled Sister Citizen. In addition to hosting her own show on MSNBC, she provides expert commentary on U.S. elections, racial issues, religious questions, and gender concerns for Politics Nation with Reverend Al Sharpton, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and other MSNBC shows. She is a regular commentator on Keeping it Real Radio with Reverend Al Sharpton and for many print and radio sources in the U.S. and abroad.

MARIANNE SCHNALL: Why do you think we’ve not yet had a woman president, and what do you think it will take to make that happen?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I think we haven’t had a woman president because we live in a country that systematically disenfranchised women for its first 100 and some years. I mean, we’ve had fewer than 100 years of women as full citizens in this country, and so I think that’s obviously part of it. You can’t expect women to be in leadership when they don’t even have an opportunity to choose who their elected leaders are. And so part of it is not only couldn’t women vote, but in many places couldn’t run for office, couldn’t hold office, couldn’t have credit in their own names—any of the things that would make having public life possible for women. I mean, I guess there were states that still had coverture laws as late as the 1950s and 1960s, right? So even if you imagine that with the end of those coverture laws, with the opening of the ballot to women and with the opportunity for women to run for office, that then you would end up with a pipeline situation. Even if at that moment all barriers dropped away, and I don’t think they did, but even if they did, then you would still have to begin the process of women entering into a field where they had previously been shut out. And then you would have to grow that pipeline until you got to the level of presidency.

I don’t think it’s a small thing that the first woman to get very near to her party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency actually came through the private sphere. She first came to the public knowledge, national public knowledge, as the wife of the president. Of course she had her own political career and ultimately became senator and all of that, but the first way that we got to know the name of Hillary Clinton was through her husband. That strikes me as kind of indicative of precisely how narrow that pathway has been—that women are still in the situation of coming to office under the terms of patriarchy and a coverture in that way.

I think it is fundamentally a different question than what are we going to do about it, like how do we end up with a woman president? I’m back and forth on this. I still believe that the first woman president is highly likely to be a Republican, and because of that, I guess I’m a little less enthusiastic for the first woman president [laughs]. On the one hand I really do [believe] that we must break this, and even if we break it with a woman Republican, then there will be a part of me that celebrates that. But I do think we have to be careful . . . from the very beginning of the suffrage question in this country, there’s been this assumption that women will bring something specific to the public sphere, as a result of their womanhood, and I don’t think that’s quite right. I’m not sure that we can say that there is a way that women govern, and, in fact, the women who are most likely to rise to the top of governing tend to govern an awful lot like men.

MS: You’re not the first one to have said that, but I’m curious about your reasons. Why do you think the first woman president could possibly be a Republican?

MHP: Well, just because we elect three different kinds of people as president in this country. We elect vice presidents, governors, and senators. And right now the most recent person to almost to be vice president, who was a woman, was a Republican. The majority of women governors are Republicans, and although there are Democratic women senators, I look at them and I don’t see—at least at this moment—I don’t see kind of a clear contender. So as much as I know people talk about Hillary, the fact is that we don’t really elect Secretaries of State as president; we mostly elect governors and vice presidents—every once in a while, a senator—and right now those pipelines are dominated by Republican women.

MS: I agree with you that there aren’t magic qualities that women would automatically inject, but at the same time, why is it important that we have more women’s voices—not necessarily just in the presidency, but represented more in Washington and in leadership positions generally?

MHP: I think there are basically two categories of reasons. One is descriptive representation and the other is substantive. So let’s take the substantive off the table for a moment. Let’s say that women don’t govern any differently than men, that women will pass exactly the same kinds of laws and use the same basic procedures for governing and that really it would make no difference to elect a woman than to elect her husband or her brother—that they’re just precisely the same. Nonetheless, there would still be a descriptive representation claim for having as close to 50 percent representation of women in legislature and in the executive positions—and that’s because part of how we think about what constitutes a democracy is that all members, of all groups, or any member from a group, should have an equal opportunity for governing, based solely on merit and not on identity. So in order for democracy to be constituted as healthy and as fully democratic, with a little “d,” it simply needs to be true that your barrier to entry is primarily about your qualification, and not about your identity. So let’s just take it as the socially and politically relevant demographic groups—by race, by ethnic identity, by gender. Even if women are no different, you still need to have 50 percent women, or upwards of it, in order to be able to say that you have a completely fair democracy.

But then I think there is reason to think that there are some substantive differences in how women govern, both stylistically and in terms of the policy output. And again, that’s just the empirical work of women in politics—scholars who show us that, in fact, when you have more women in a state legislature, for example, you’re more likely to have real bipartisan bills passed, that women tend to introduce more legislation on issues of the environment and education than their male colleagues. So there do, in fact, seem to be substantive reasons for having women, but even if there weren’t, the descriptive ones, I think, are pretty strong.

MS: You were talking about ideally achieving 50 percent. Sometimes we forget, even with all of the strides we made in this last election, that twenty senators is still really far from parity—and even when you look at the low numbers of female Fortune 500 CEOs or just in general the corporate world. Do you have a sense of what’s going on there? Why we are lagging behind? There’s been a lot of discussion right now that some of this may be self-imposed, that women aren’t pursuing these positions, or do you think more that it’s these other structural obstacles holding women back?

MHP: Most of these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive—both that women may be making a choice more frequently not to pursue and that that is because of the institutional barriers they face. It’s one thing to run a marathon; it’s another thing to run a marathon with one leg. There will be one-legged people who will run marathons and they’re kind of extraordinary, but when you have that barrier to overcome, too, more people are going to opt out of that. So I suppose what I would say is that the first piece of evidence we have is simply the reality of the incumbency advantage, so because women were shut out for most of the history of the country, when women tended to run, they were running against incumbents. And incumbents tend to win. That’s just kind of a political truism. The single best advantage you can have for office is already holding that office. Women tend to do as well as their male counterparts in open-seat races. So if you hold all things constant—so you have Man A, Woman B, and they have basically the same kind of résumé—in an open-seat race, women are just as likely to win as men are. But the fact is that we mostly aren’t facing open-seat races. You mostly have to win these national races, especially in the House of Representatives, by beating somebody who’s already there. It’s really tough for challengers, and women are going to be more likely to be the challengers. So that’s part of it.

The second thing is, clearly the expense of running for office deters all kinds of newcomers and all kinds of people who have fewer institutional resources, and women continue to be poor in this country, on average and in general, more than men are. They have less access to capital, less access to the opportunities to raise the highest levels of capital, and so because it is almost unthinkably expensive to run . . . even our recent School Board race here in New Orleans was upward of like $250,000 [laughs]. I was just like, Who has that kind of money to run for office? Who has that kind of money to be on the school board? Add to that, then, what it takes to run for much higher levels of office. So part of it is that money tends to discourage newcomers and newcomers are, again, going to be more likely to be women.

Then, of course, we have all the institutional barriers that start from early school on. I am constantly telling the women in my classes that they should consider running for office, mostly because what we know is that when men are talented and when men are smart and when men show some leadership, it’s hard for them to even get to college without someone, at some point, asking them, “Hey, have you ever thought about running for office? Man, you would be a great president.” Even as little tiny boys, right? “Oh man, you’re good at this. I bet you’ll be president someday.” It turns out that we don’t have those same kinds of standard messages for girls. So if a woman is very talented and can remember people’s names and she shows a lot of interest in politics, we tend to say things like “Good job” or “Here’s an A on your paper,” but we don’t tend to say, “Hey, have you ever thought about running for office?” Some of it is just the very basics of being recruited. And then I think at least one of the things that Jennifer Lawless and some other folks have shown in their research is that women are perhaps more discouraged by the ugliness of running than are their male counterparts, that just because of how we tend to socialize women to have a very strong desire to please people, they are less comfortable with the level of ugliness that occurs in modern campaigning.

MS: You wrote this really important book, Sister Citizen, and I’m hoping with my own book that it conveys two things: that it’s not just about women, it’s about having greater diversity in general, and also about the fact there are many ways to participate in our government, not just being president or an elected official, but also being an empowered citizen. How do you see what you wrote about in your book as connected to this conversation?

MHP: Yes, I appreciate your saying that, because we’ve been talking about elected office, we’ve been talking about a woman president, which requires running for office at various stages. That’s an important point: I can’t imagine what would happen for me to run for office, but I certainly see myself as engaged politically. And not just because of the show, but I write to my representative, my mother is one of those retired ladies who goes up to the State House and protests. So I always have and I hope always will be engaged in the political world. It’s something that I’ve tried to pass on to my own daughter, as part of what you need to know in the world—in addition to math and science and English—is to know how your government works, know who represents you, and put pressure on them toward the ends and goals that you see as important.

You know, Sister Citizen is meant to be more analytic than prescriptive. It’s not so much how to fix this, as it is to try to say: here is at least one story about how African American women end up constrained in the way that they engage the political world, and they’re constrained by all these very old, very deep stereotypes, and it can create actual emotional and psychological residue that makes it hard to do the work of politics. And yes, I certainly am talking about African American women, but although I would never compare myself to Toni Morrison, I do take from Toni Morrison the lesson that when we tell a specific story, it’s actually for the purpose of telling the universal. Right? We go narrow in order to illuminate something larger. So even though I’m talking about black women, it’s with the goal of saying that when we enter into the political world, all of us, we don’t just come in as our political selves, we bring our whole selves, all of our expectations about what a woman is supposed to be, what an African American is supposed to be, what an American is supposed to be—and those expectations that are racialized and gendered and classed can really impact the way that we engage politically.

MS: Now that we have also elected Barack Obama twice—and certainly in this last election there was, it seemed, a move toward greater diversity—do you feel hopeful? Do you see any new paradigms emerging? Are you optimistic?

MHP: I am, but I’m always optimistic. I was optimistic halfway through the George W. Bush presidency [laughs]. I’m just not a person who believes that we are in the worst time, that this is the decline of the American project, or that there was some better, nostalgic time in the fifties. No! Maybe for white folks there was some time that was better, but for black girls, nope, never a better time than this. However bad this is, it’s always the very best time that there has ever been. And so I guess maybe it’s not that I think that progress is inevitable or that it’s easy or that we just kind of march forward without struggle, but I’m not nervous about the fact that it takes struggle to make progress. That does, in fact, seem right, and it seems like in many ways exactly what our founders expected. Democracy is supposed to be hard. Totalitarianism is easy; you don’t have to be part of it.

MS: The media has such a big impact and that is a place where there has not been such great diversity either. There’s a report from the Women’s Media Center that actually said it is at crisis levels. One of the things that has made me optimistic is, for example, your having your own show, where you are basically getting to talk about all the things that you would want to talk about that aren’t really being represented in many other places. Are you aware of the milestone of your show? And also, how do you feel about the role of diversity in media in general, because that is where people’s political consciousness starts and their understanding of the issues and what needs to be done?

MHP: Yeah, I mean, I can’t believe I have a TV show [laughs]. I am sure at some point that someone is going to come and take it away, because we do crazy things every week. I constantly am thinking to myself, We just put that on television!


On Sale
Nov 5, 2013
Page Count
256 pages
Seal Press

Marianne Schnall

About the Author

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose work has appeared in a variety of media outlets such as The Huffington Post; O, The Oprah Magazine; Glamour; In Style; Psychology Today; Ms. magazine; The Women’s Media Center; CNN.com; and a variety of others. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice, which is based on her interviews with a diversity of well-known women, including Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman, Jane Goodall, Alice Walker, and more.

Marianne graduated from Cornell University in 1989 with a BA in English, and she is also a graduate of the Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices media and leadership training program. She does a regular radio commentary for WAMC’s nationally syndicated show 51% The Women’s Perspective, which is carried nationally on NPR, ABC, and Armed Forces Radio stations. She was a contributor to Robin Morgan’s anthology, Sisterhood is Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium.

Marianne is the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com, a leading women’s website and nonprofit organization. For over fifteen years, Feminist.com has been fostering awareness, education, and activism for people all across the world. She is also the cofounder of EcoMall.com, one of the oldest environmental websites promoting earth-friendly living. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes.

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