Washington The Mattel Corporation introduced a "President Barbie" doll this spring. The actress Glenn Close played a tough and convincing vice president to Harrison Ford's president in the movie "Air Force One." And a grown-up Lisa Simpson recently starred as "Madam President" in an episode of "The Simpsons" while her brother, Bart, was stuck in a supporting role as the perpetual cut-up.
Women are making great fictional strides in politics, but the day when a real-life woman can expect to take the oath of office as president remains elusive.
At a focus group designed to probe the prospects for a woman president, voters could think of so few women who could be president that they offered Martha Stewart, the lifestyle guru, and Rosie O'Donnell, a talk-show host, as possible candidates.
It has been 16 years since Geraldine Ferraro made history as the first woman to appear on a major party presidential ticket. Whether her presence helped or hurt the cause of electing a woman to the highest office is still being debated today. More women entered political life because they were inspired by Ferraro, but the 49-state loss of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket in 1984 left the Democrats wary of relying on gender to win votes. Ferraro believes the defeat was inevitable and that President Reagan would have won re-election "if God herself was on the ticket."
There is remarkably little pressure on the two major parties to put a woman on the ticket this year. The gender gap that elected Bill Clinton president seems to have vanished in the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. With polls showing Bush holding his own among women, he has no incentive to name a woman running mate. Elizabeth Dole is said to be on Bush's short list, but unless the gender gap reappears, her selection is unlikely. Picking a vice president is cold-blooded politics, and Bush will choose someone who brings to the ticket what he needs.
Gore won't win in November if he doesn't get more women voting for him. But naming a female running mate carries risks. Some will interpret it as a desperation move. Walter Mondale was behind 30 points when he turned to Ferraro.
A poll taken early this year showed 90 percent of Americans are open to voting for a woman as president. But that leaves 10 percent of voters who would reject a woman. In the focus group, Jim, a retired construction worker, said he would not vote for any candidate who selected a woman as his running mate. He thinks women "fall to pieces" under pressure. The woman sitting next to Jim rolled her eyes. But he had his defenders. Mildred, whose children are grown, and Arlene, who runs her own Internet business, both felt women weren't ready for the awesome responsibility of a president. Arlene said that, as a mother, she couldn't imagine sending her children or grandchildren to war.
Interestingly, this focus group took place in Phoenix, where the top five elected officials are women. These voters are accustomed to seeing women in leadership roles, and they cited integrity and honesty as the most important qualities for a president. Most agreed that women score higher on these attributes, yet there are few women they could imagine as president.
With only three female governors (out of 50) and nine female senators (out of 100), real life has not kept up with Hollywood. But that's about to change. Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, but if she wins the Senate race in New York, she will vault to the top of the short list for president.
- Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Features Syndicate.