Is the US ready for a woman president?

Nearly 60 countries in the world's modern history have elected, chosen, or promoted women for the top job, including more than a dozen who currently hold office


By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 7 Sep 2022, 9:18 PM

Last updated: Wed 7 Sep 2022, 10:31 PM

One of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, albeit under a titular constitutional monarchy, has a woman at the helm. Elizabeth Truss has become Britain's new prime minister, only the third woman to occupy the office (after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May) in a country whose 96-year old monarch, also named Elizabeth, has seen 15 prime ministers on her watch going back to Winston Churchill.

In this respect at least, the United Kingdom has established a 3-0 lead over the United States, whose presidential form of government has failed, over nearly 250 years, to put a woman in the White House, specifically behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Nearly 60 countries in the world's modern history have elected, chosen, or promoted women for the top job, including more than a dozen who currently hold office.

Europe is generally regarded as the region with the highest concentration of female-led and repeatedly female-led nations. Switzerland leads with five former female presidents, although their terms are limited to one year. But Finland has had four female prime ministers or presidents, including current premier Sanna Marin. Iceland has had three female leaders. Most major European countries, with the exception of Spain and Italy, have had female leaders, few more prominent than Germany's Angela Merkel, who was at the helm for 16 years.

Contrary to the general impression that Islamic countries have failed to deliver on this front, Muslim nations have some notable records in this sphere. Bangladesh has had the longest stretches with female leaders in the past 50 years, with two women, Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed, governing the country for more than half its existence, better than even Iceland, which has had a female president or prime minister in 20 of the past 50 years. While there was much hoopla in 2018 when New Zealand Jacinda Ardern gave birth to a child while in office, the first to do so was Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth to her daughter Bakhtawar in January 1990 while she was prime minister of Pakistan the first time. Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001–2004), Turkey's Tansu Ciller (1993–1995), and Tunisia's Najla Bouden (2021-current) are among those who have led Muslim nations.

All this puts an embarrassing spotlight on the United States, which has failed to elect a female president in 45 elections while lecturing the world on female empowerment and women's rights. But never fear. What America cannot bring about in real life, it can achieve on celluloid and screen. The theme of women in the White House has animated Hollywood for nearly a century now, going back to soon after the United States empowered women to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment to its Constitution in 1919, ratified and certified in 1920.

Four years later, the silent science-fiction film The Last Man on Earth showed a woman as president of the United States – after a disease known as ‘masculitis’ has killed off every fertile man on earth over the age of fourteen. Since then, Betty Boop in 1932, Polly Bergen in 1964, Natalie Portman in 1996, Christina Applegate in 1998, Lisa Simpson in 2000 and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2012 are among those who have been US Presidents -- on screen.

In several movies, books and television series, a woman becomes president only because men die – or they have been marginalized. In Pat Frank’s 1959 science-fiction novel Alas, Babylon, Josephine Vanebruuker-Brown becomes president because she is the only member in the line of succession to survive nuclear war. In 1995, the TV series Sliders aired an episode entitled ‘The Weaker Sex’, where Teresa Barnwell played Hillary Clinton as president of the United States in an alternative universe where women are in charge. In ABC’s 2012 TV series Scandal, Melody Margaret Grant becomes the first female president of the United States after the assassination of President-elect Francisco Vargas.

On the rare occasion a woman becomes the president on her own steam, she is shown struggling to balance the job and the family – a requirement men are rarely expected to meet. In the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President, Leslie McCloud eventually discovers that she is pregnant and resigns to devote herself full-time to her family. In the 1985 ABC sitcom Hail to the Chief, President Julia Mansfield has to manage her political fortunes while raising her family.

The burden of expectation women leaders have to bear was most evident recently when Finland’s Sanna Marin was roasted over a leaked video showing her partying. Such a video would not even have caused a blip had the leader been male, a privilege best conveyed in the boast of a US politician that "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." In that respect, Britain appears to be more forgiving, looking beyond an extramarital affair Liz Truss had in 2004 – and acknowledged – to catapult her into 10, Downing Street.

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