Why hasn’t the United States had a female president

The Media, and Then Some

Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns,

By Erika Falk

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 171 pp., $19.95, paperback

Reviewed by Ruth Rosen

Why hasn’t the United States elected a female president? Why has our society been so resistant to female leadership when countries as various as Turkey, Ireland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Canada, France, and England have embraced women presidents and prime ministers? In Woman for President, Erika Falk raises this important question. Is there something so uniquely misogynist about our political culture that even Hillary Clinton, arguably the most competent woman to ever run for national office, still incited such distaste among both women and men?

Woman for President begins with Victoria Woodhull’s campaign for the president in 1872 and ends with that of Carol Moseley Braun in 2004. In between, Erika Falk examines how newspapers covered the campaigns of Victoria Woodhull (1872), Belva Bennett Lockwood (1884), Margaret Chase Smith (1974), Shirley St. Hill Chisholm (1972), Patricia Scott Schroeder (1987), Lenora Branch Fulani (1988), and Elizabeth Dole (2000). Falk’s basic argument is that in each case, the media ignored or distorted female candidates’ personalities and positions. “By ignoring women candidates,” she writes, and “painting them in stereotypical ways, the press may amplify the impression that women do not belong in the political sphere and it may minimize the potential effects of women as role models.”

Certainly the media have stood in the way of every woman who ever ran for president—or any other office, for that matter—but for different reasons. The flamboyant and countercultural Victoria Woodhull, the candidate of the radical Equal Rights party in 1872, would not be acceptable to mainstream US voters even today. A century later, in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first woman presidential candidate of a major party, was unacceptable not only to the press but also to her own Democratic party, which was not yet ready to nominate an African American woman.

Furthermore, some of these candidates never officially announced their runs for president, while others ran on third-party tickets. Even today, a candidate of any gender who never officially announced his or her candidacy, or who ran on a third-party ticket, would be unlikely to get much media attention—even with strategic use of the Internet. And such campaigns aren’t comparable to those of mainstream candidates.

Although Falk analyzes eight campaigns by women, over a 130 year span of American history, her book cannot explain why the US has never elected a female president. The problem lies in her research methodology—content analysis of the media. She discovers through her analysis that the media focus on a woman’s appearance rather than on the substance of her policies and her vision; that they distort or trivialize her words; and that they force her to prove her “maternal” experience as well as her ability to command the armed forces. None of this is news. But Falk fails to provide the historical or cultural context that would enable readers to understand the different kinds of resistance women candidates have encountered.

To bring Falk’s book up to date, consider the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Of course the media displayed a revolting amount of sexism in their analysis of her appearance. Of course pundits ridiculed her laugh, her voice, and her pantsuits. However, although her critics may have carped about her appearance, none accused her of being a frivolous presidential choice. Despite media sexism, Clinton found a way to display her brilliance and competency. It wasn’t the press that defeated her. Rather, her campaign was often at war with itself, and even more importantly, she had to contend with the baggage of her husband Bill, the former president, who inspires both great admiration and considerable anxiety among voters.

Contrast the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton with that of Alaska governor Sarah Palin. First, they turned her into a glamorous and charismatic celebrity. When her astonishing lack of knowledge began to embarrass conservative intellectuals, the media echoed their disappointment. By the end of the election cycle, studies show, negative stories about Palin far outweighed positive ones. Was this because of sexism? No, it was because Palin was—as the brilliant Rachel Maddow pointed out on MSNBC—a token woman, not a competent one.


But let’s return to Falk’s original question: why hasn’t the US yet elected a women president? The media is not exclusively responsible for this failure, although its trivializing of women candidates is certainly part of the problem. But the media mostly reflects our political culture and traditions. It is to these that we must look for answers.

Throughout most of US history, men have been expected to be strong and protective while women are nurturing caretakers of the husbands, their homes, and their children. Our political culture is deeply gendered. Unlike in Europe, we have a weak sense of class. Historian Kathryn Sklar notes that in American politics, gender plays the role that class does elsewhere. Rather than address the problem of poverty in general, the US welfare system focuses on poor women almost exclusively. And, at the other end of the spectrum, US women politicians do not benefit greatly from upper-class privilege or as members of a dynastic political family.

We even “code” male candidates in gendered terms. In 1988, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis lost credibility as the Democratic presidential candidate when he dressed up in a too-big helmet and ended up looking ridiculous popping out of a military tank. During the same election season, Newsweek magazine called his opponent, the senior George Bush, a “wimp” in a famous a cover story. His son vowed never to let the media cast him as anything but a swaggering Texan as he pursued his cowboy foreign policies.

Sklar notes that this kind of “masculine mystique” hurts female candidates, because many Americans perceive their presidents exclusively in military terms, as commanders-in-chief, rather than as protectors of citizens’ economic security, health, and education.

During the primaries of 2008, however, the historic battle between a woman and an African American gave rise to a fascinating gender reversal. I was hardly the only one to notice Clinton’s increasingly aggressive tone, as she tried to prove that even though she was a woman, she could be a strong commander-in-chief. At the same time, Barack Obama became more conciliatory and restrained, to reassure whites that he was not an angry, threatening black man.

It is the deeply gendered and racialized nature of US political culture that is missing from Falk’s book. Since the Reagan administration, American governments have held an unquestioned, fundamentalist-like belief in the ability of markets to solve all problems and have created an imperial political culture that values dominance over cooperation. Dissenters found themselves vilified as promoters of a “nanny state” or discredited as too soft to be national leaders.

I don’t have all the answers to Falk’s question, but the media are only part of the reason why the US has not yet elected a woman president. The media reflect culture, even as they shape it. The value of Women For President is that Falk has raised an important question and created a serious research agenda for others to pursue. t

Ruth Rosen, professor emerita of history at the University of California Davis, teaches at the University of California Berkeley and is the author, most recently of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (2007). She is a regular contributor to Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo.com).


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