Madeleine Kunin
Washington Post
Op|Ed • Friday, January 11, 2008

By Madeleine M. Kunin

Who's Ready For a Female President?

Times have changed since I was first elected governor of Vermont in 1984. When I walked into the executive office the morning after the election, I scanned the portraits of somber governors with names like Ebenezer, Erastus and Ezra. They stared down at me as if to say, "What are you doing here?" When 9-year-old Melissa Campbell visited the Vermont State House in 2006 and came upon my portrait, she exclaimed, "Finally, a woman -- it's about time!"

Is it about time for a woman to be president? Are we ready? The answer is that some parts of the country are more ready than others. And it may have to do with the number of women who have been elected to high office in those states.

Forget the pollsters' predictions and apologies for getting it all wrong in New Hampshire. Iowa and New Hampshire have different political histories and cultures with regard to electing women, and it showed in how they voted. Similar differences among states may play out in the voting to come this month and on Super Tuesday in February.

New Hampshire elected a popular female governor three times, and it has the nation's second-highest percentage of women in its legislature -- 35.8 percent. (My state ranks first, at 37.8 percent.) Iowa hovers near the national average, at 22.7 percent, but it is one of two states (the other is Mississippi) that have never elected a woman to Congress or the governor's seat. Women in high office are not visible to Iowa's electorate.

Women came out in droves for the recent Democratic voting in both New Hampshire and Iowa. The numbers in the two states were nearly identical -- 57 percent women and 43 percent men. But in New Hampshire those women supported Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama 46 to 29 percent, while in Iowa they backed Obama 35 to 30 percent.

Why the difference?

Aside from having elected a woman as governor, New Hampshire has become accustomed to seeing women wield the legislative gavel. Both its House speaker and Senate president are women. Their voices and their faces are on the nightly news. It's not startling to see women in power, because they are there in significant numbers. Their hairstyles, color choices and range of emotions are less newsworthy because they are no longer one of a kind.

When researching my forthcoming book, I concluded that electing women is contagious. The more you see, the more you get. The states with two female U.S. senators -- Washington, California and Maine -- also have large female congressional delegations and a high percentage of women in their state legislatures. Washington has the added bonus of a female governor. These elected women serve as powerful role models for other women, who see them in action and ask themselves, why not?

They have the further effect of demonstrating to the voters that the diversity that women bring to the political process has its rewards: new ideas, priorities and leadership styles.

When I ran for governor, was I ambitious? Yes. Anyone, male or female, who goes through the trials of a campaign must be ambitious. But can a woman be seen as openly seeking power? Power is an explosive word, particularly when applied to women. It is one of the arrows that is shot at Clinton. Women, many believe, are not supposed to want power.

Female voters, in the final hours before the New Hampshire primary, suddenly got it: Running for president is different for a woman than it is for a man. The difference became clear when Clinton's voice quavered and she showed deep emotion while meeting with a group of women at a diner. It was a "just us girls" moment, when she felt she could let her hair down and they would understand.

A lot of New Hampshire women apparently did.

Time will tell whether the country understands. Clinton has been both applauded and mocked for loosening her control over her psyche a notch. But the diner incident wasn't all there was to it. Some women I spoke to were tired of seeing Clinton attacked and were not ready to let go of the possibility that a woman might be elected president.

When the campaigns turn to Nevada, South Carolina and beyond, will women continue to turn out for Clinton in large numbers? South Carolina will be tough. It has the distinction of ranking at the bottom in the percentage of women in its legislature: 8.8 percent. There are not many female role models to guide voters, and the tradition that a Southern woman's place is in the home still lingers in some quarters.

Nevada and Florida provide friendlier territory. Nevada's legislature is 30.2 percent female, and women hold the statewide offices of attorney general, treasurer and controller. In Florida's legislature, 23.1 percent of the members are women, and the state has five women in Congress.

The more women head legislative bodies, like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the more women who hold state elective offices, the less often it will be asked whether the country is "ready for a female president."

New Hampshire is ready. As for the rest of the nation, the next primaries may give us the answer.

The writer, a Democrat, is a former governor of Vermont and ambassador to Switzerland. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Pearls, Politics and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead." She has endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton. reader comments
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