Can America Ever Elect A Woman President?

America has never elected a female president in its 252 years. The recent exit of Nikki Haley from the presidential race has cast a spotlight on the enduring challenges faced by female politicians and highlighted that the political arena remains a battleground where women must navigate a labyrinth of biases and scepticism
By M R Dua
  • Gender bias persists in US elections, with women often facing skepticism about their ability to succeed as president
  • Shirley Anita St Hill Chisholm, a Black African-American woman of Guyanese origin, was the first woman to run for US president
  • In 2020, Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of color, first Black woman, and first South Asian woman elected as Vice President
  • Statistics reveal lingering uncertainty among Americans about electing women to prominent positions, indicating entrenched voter prejudices

THE recent exit of Nikki Haley from the presidential race highlights the challenges that female politicians still face in the United States of America. Despite the progress made towards gender equality, women who aspire to high political office still encounter significant barriers.

Statistics reveal that a considerable portion of the American population remains uncertain about electing female leaders to prominent positions, indicating deep-rooted prejudices among voters. Women who participate in politics must overcome numerous obstacles. Advocates like Susan Madsen point out the ongoing gender bias that female politicians must confront. They are often subjected to intense scrutiny and doubted about their qualifications while facing persistent questions about their strength and appropriateness for the job. These inquiries mirror the deep-seated stereotypes prevalent in society.

LONG ROAD TO THE OVAL OFFICE

Nikki Haley, the former Governor of South Carolina, officially withdrew from the 2024 presidential race. Despite clinching a victory in Vermont, her campaign failed to secure wins in other states during the Super Tuesday primaries, ultimately leading to Donald Trump securing the Republican nomination. Notably, Haley made history by winning the Washington, DC primary, becoming the first female candidate to win a Republican presidential primary. Nikki, (Namrata to her Sikh parents), a prominent figure of Indian-American heritage, had garnered significant attention before suspending her campaign. Her background as the daughter of Sikh immigrants and her tenure as the US Ambassador to the United Nations added depth to her candidacy. Her poll campaign was adequately and fully staffed and richly funded. Nikki has received profound and generous financial support from the GOP’s (Grand Old Party) many usual donors, such as the Koch brothers—Charles and David. They are also believed to have pledged $70 million for now, and more may follow later.

The quest for the Oval Office has been seen as a long wait for American women despite their numerical majority over men: 171.7 million women to 168.3 million men, with a gender ratio of 98.016 males per 100 females as per the 2023 population statistics. In 2020, Kamala (Gopalan) Harris, the first ever woman of colour, the first Black woman of colour, the first South-Asian woman, and the current Vice President was the first woman elected to the United States second-highest office ever.

As the US presidential election on November 5, 2024, draws closer, the Democratic Party’s incumbent, President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, has confirmed his intention to run for a second term. Despite concerns about his health and age—he will be 82 in November—President Biden remains resolute in his campaign. This has led to discussions among voters about the potential implications of his age, as he would be 86 at the end of a second term, setting a record for the oldest serving US President.

The list of Republican contenders has narrowed down significantly. Former President Donald J Trump, a four-time indicted, twice-impeached and deemed outright unfit to be elected again, maintains a strong approval rating and is a prominent figure in the race. He has been actively telling millions of his followers to jump into the field and is highly popular among ordinary common American voters.

Nikki Haley, the former Governor of South Carolina, officially withdrew from the 2024 presidential race. Despite clinching a victory in Vermont, her campaign failed to secure wins in other states during the Super Tuesday primaries, ultimately leading to Donald Trump securing the Republican nomination

Currently, he enjoys the highest approval rating of 65% among many contenders for the nation’s top office and is duelling legal fights in numerous courts—from East to West, North to South, literally. The 74-year-old Trump is facing a battery of court cases: a total of some ninety-plus court suits: both criminal and civil. In addition, Trump is bound by the two court gag orders, and defamation fines amounting to millions. And that’s not the end. More in the pipeline waiting.

Though this moot question which has been asked at almost every presidential election many times over is: Why hasn’t a woman been elected to America’s top office in over two-and-a-quarter-centuries? There’s unfortunately no cogent answer to this tricky, but highly significant query. The only hazy and somewhat indistinct responses that have emerged from the academic research conducted by political scientists and women studies departments of some US universities.

To begin with, according to the University of Virginia Center for Politics, ‘there are three main interrelated reasons’ besides others, why the United States, one of the world’s oldest and most established democracies, has never had a woman head of state during the last more than 250 years of its most stable run.

The Oval Office of the White House is newly redecorated for the first day of President Joe Biden’s administration, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The quest for the Oval Office has been seen as a long wait for American women despite their numerical majority over men: 171.7 million women to 168.3 million men, with a gender ratio of 98.016 males per 100 females as per the 2023 population statistics

These are structural (administrative) reasons; such as the electoral campaigns are ‘more challenging for women than men; (inactive, unenthusiastic) media coverage of the female candidates; and public opinion and the stereotyped, cliché-ridden support that impacts how voters evaluate candidates. Yet another (debatable) reason often quoted is that women (and particularly the women voters) are more pessimistic than men about the prospects for a female presidential candidate. Fewer women than men think many Americans are ready to elect a woman to higher office even though more women than men personally hope that a woman will become President in the US in their lifetime. In fact, many Americans – men and women I have talked with — are still sceptical that a woman can make a successful President, and nation’s ex-officio commander-in-chief –-the army title that many (women) abhor.

GENDER BIAS AND ITS IMPACT

Incidentally, the US’s historical electoral records I have been able to access show that the first woman to run for President was a Black African-American woman of Guyanese origin: Shirley Anita St Hill Chisholm, was in Congress (the American Parliament consisting of two legislative houses, the Senate, and the House of Representatives) in 1968, and was the first woman, an African-American, to seek nomination for President of the United States from one of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party, in 1972. She had served seven terms in the US House of Representatives.

Geraldine Ferraro, the congresswoman from Queens who was 48 at the time, made history despite her unsuccessful vice presidential campaign with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. In 2008, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, was selected by Republican senator John McCain as his vice-presidential candidate.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is recognized as the only woman to have been a major party’s presidential nominee, winning the popular vote yet not achieving the presidency. In the 2016 election, she was the prominent female candidate competing against Republican nominee Donald Trump. Her distinguished political journey includes serving as the First Lady of Arkansas for two terms, the First Lady of the United States for two terms during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and as the Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013 under President Obama’s administration.

However, in the process, Hillary Clinton’s White House bid as the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential nomination, has now ‘opened a realm of possibility for many young people, which is a lot different than the Generation X or Gen Z who did not have to muster profound courage, collect huge mass of money and unstinted popular support to envision reaching the White House.
Most democratic countries worldwide, like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, have elected women to the top political offices, but not even once in the US’s over 250-year independent history has a woman been elected president. Isn’t it amazing? Intriguing? In fact, currently, there are more than 20 countries in the world today, much smaller than the USA, such as Singapore, Finland, and Estonia where women rule. In the US too, most recently, the Democratic Party’s Hilary Clinton tried to break the stalemate but failed.

Incidentally, a recent poll by Monmouth University-Washington Post of South Carolina voters shows that Trump enjoys 58% support in South Carolina. He had 46% in September. Haley trails at 32%. She polled at 18% in a September survey, as the records show.

STRUCTURAL AND CULTURAL BARRIERS

The question, of why no woman has been President of the United States for so many years, keeps people’s minds vexed all along. I found these questions answered in a couple of political scientists’ research studies and political advocacy groups’ reports.

A study titled “Women’s History Month,” for example, has pointed out that in some countries women are elected/chosen as Presidents or head the state because these countries have a “gender quota.” It said that “these quotas are intended to boost representation in political systems where women are historically underrepresented.” This study was conducted by a political science professor, Nadia E Brown, of Georgetown University, in Washington.

Speaking about the study, Brown said that these quotas “allow women to be elected to national positions’’, adding, “The population just doesn’t think about women as being incapable of leading in the way that the United States does.”

The list of Republican contenders has narrowed down significantly, with former President Donald J Trump, a four-time indicted, twice-impeached and deemed outright unfit to be elected again, currently enjoying the highest approval rating of 65% among many contenders for the nation’s top office

Continuing, Nadia Brown noted that “some of these things are structural that the United States could put into place, and then others are cultural. Because we couldn’t have those structures in place, we fall back on cultural norms (and) gender socialisation that really remove women from top leadership positions.’’
Elaborating, the study author pointed out that the lack of structural systems that propel women into public offices has created an American society where “we don’t imagine that (women) can do the job.” Referring to other well-known allegedly male ‘sinister’ barriers in following those systems is the “good old-fashioned sexism, where some people still believe that women have a specific place in public life, or they don’t have any place in public life.”The other prominent factor that has worked against women in many “white” countries of the West is that men are said to have deep bias against Black, women of colour. Many studies by political advocacy organisations, such as “She the People” argue this as a profound reason.

This group is also said to have averred that ‘for a woman to ascend to the White House, (other) women have to continue the work of building power within political parties.’ “We exist as Black people in a system of ‘white supremacy, and as women in a system of patriarchy,” says Aimee Allison, the founder-president of the advocacy group, “She the People.’’
Allison continued: “That’s not just about personal feelings or personal interactions but is about the way that institutions are set up, and those institutions determine who’s in leadership.’’ …. “You can try to change the leaders’ beliefs and attitudes, or you can change the leaders themselves,” she explained, adding, “It means taking over leadership of political parties at the state and national level to literally change the system to enable women to get the seat.”

Historically, in 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, a distinguished member of Congress from Maine, vied for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination but did not succeed in the primaries. Fast forward to the 2024 presidential nomination race, an unprecedented number of female candidates have entered the fray, yet none have secured the nomination.

It’s noteworthy that in 2020, Senator Kamala Harris of California was the sole woman to achieve a vice-presidential nomination, running alongside President Joe Biden. Kamala Harris made history as the first Black woman, and person of South Asian descent, to hold the office of Vice President of the United States. The Biden-Harris team, victorious in the 2020 election, is currently preparing for the upcoming 2024 campaign.

MEDIA PORTRAYAL AND PUBLIC PERCEPTION

Indeed, Hollywood has often depicted intriguing scenarios involving female Presidents, reflecting a range of creative and sometimes unconventional narratives. Historian Alexis Coe highlights several noteworthy examples: “The Last Man on Earth” (1924): In this film, a woman assumes the presidency due to a catastrophic event that eliminates most men from society. “Mars Attacks!”: Natalie Portman’s character becomes President after an extraterrestrial invasion upheaves traditional power structures. Television series such as “Prison Break,” “Scandal,” “House of Cards,” and “Quantico” have all depicted women in the highest office, albeit temporarily or with certain limitations.

“Kisses for My President” (1964): A comedy film where the female President resigns due to pregnancy, highlighting societal perceptions about women balancing family and career responsibilities. “Veep”: Selina Meyer’s character serves as an interesting portrayal of a female president, grappling with various challenges and ultimately securing a nonconsecutive term, reminiscent of Grover Cleveland’s presidency. These portrayals showcase Hollywood’s exploration of gender dynamics, political scenarios, and societal expectations surrounding female leadership in the highest office.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is recognized as the only woman to have been a major party’s presidential nominee, winning the popular vote yet not achieving the presidency. In the 2016 election, she was the prominent female candidate competing against Republican nominee Donald Trump

But American women need not be disappointed, or disheartened, as the late President Gerald Ford, who was never chosen Vice-President and never elected President, had (funny) advice for a young lady wanting to become president of the United States. Ford had said — in a seemingly light style mollifying the female voter, that abundantly fits the women’s struggle to the White House even on the 2024 Super Tuesday, March 5, where Haley faced a huge defeat against her sole GOP rival and colleague Donald Trump. Trump won hands down.

So, this is what Ford had then told the young lady: “I will tell you how I think it will happen because it won’t happen in the normal course of events.” Ford was an unpopular, unelected one-term President…the first woman to ascend to the presidency, he said, would be promoted, just as he had been when Richard Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal was unveiled. The fact is that Nixon appointed Ford to the vice-presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned…a woman president would have to be elected with the president in a general election, like Selena Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, in the HBO show Veep.

Super Tuesday

IT is traditionally one of the most important dates in the US political calendar according to The New York Times reporter, Maggie Astor. It is the day in the presidential primary cycle when the most states (among the 50 states) of the union vote. The exact number varies by year, but it is common for a third of all delegates to the Republican or Democratic conventions to be awarded on Super Tuesday. This year, it will account for 874 of 2,429 Republican delegates, or 36%. By the time Super Tuesday is over, 1,151 of the total will have been allocated for this primary session. This year, it is Tuesday, March 5, though usually it is in February. 

PRAGMATIC BIAS

Even though many Americans believe women are just as deserving as men when it comes to leadership, gender bias remains, making it hard for women to attain the highest office. Though stereotypes about women can certainly hurt their chances of being elected president, another type of bias may also be at play: “pragmatic bias.” Holding pragmatic bias against women in an election means that people who may prefer a woman candidate still won’t vote for her out of fear that it will be too difficult or impossible for her to win—often because they believe others won’t support her.

Could this be part of what’s holding women candidates back from the highest office? And, if so, what can we do about it? A new study aimed to find out.
The research took place amidst the 2020 US primary elections, a time when several Democratic female candidates with considerable appeal, such as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, were in the fray. Democratic electors faced the dual challenge of selecting not just their presidential preference but also a candidate capable of defeating Donald Trump—providing a case study of how practical biases might sway electoral decisions.

In their investigation, scholars surveyed Democratic primary voters to gauge perceptions on the general electability of female candidates, the specific electability of certain female candidates, and the likelihood of voters casting their ballot for a woman. This assessment considered various demographic factors, including the voters’ gender, age, ethnicity, educational background, and whether they favoured a female or male candidate.

The survey revealed that a significant majority, 76%, believed a woman would face greater challenges in winning against the incumbent President Trump, while 16% felt gender would not influence the outcome, and 8% opined that a woman might have an easier path.
The reasons cited for the perceived lower electability of women included pragmatic concerns. A substantial 91% of respondents felt that a sizable portion of the American populace was not prepared to elect a female president. Additionally, there was a consensus that female candidates are subjected to stricter standards of qualification, biassed media portrayal, and more intense and impactful opposition criticism.

Robb Willer, a co-author of the study from Stanford University, was not taken aback by these findings. He noted, “This belief appears to be widespread among Americans, especially those on the liberal spectrum who are more attuned to and concerned with societal gender disparities.” He observed that many Democratic primary voters harbour deep-rooted doubts about the biases others may hold against women leaders. Furthermore, the study discovered that those who doubted a woman’s electability were also less inclined to vote for a female candidate in the primaries, even if she was their preferred choice.
Finally, the 2024 run for the White House seems to be set between the current President, Joe Biden, and the former President, Donald Trump. Meanwhile, one of the most recent opinion polls by The New York Times-Sierra shows no woman again on the presidential November 2024 ballot; but Trump 58%: Biden 54%. The tally seems to be favouring Trump. Therefore, be that as it may, Americans sit with fingers crossed who will make it to the 2024 White House victory.

M R DUA

The author was a professor and head of print journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, for nearly two decades. He also taught journalism at different universities in California, Calicut, and Chandigarh. He was editor of publications, Union Labour Ministry. He was also director of JIMS, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, and Institute of Media, Gurugram. He has authored five books on media issues. His writings have appeared in national newspapers, magazines, and media research journals in India and USA.

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