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Call her Madame President

Call her Madame President

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It's settled: A woman can be president.

In Hollywood.

President Mackenzie Allen in the first two episodes of ABC's Commander in Chief already has taken the oath of office, addressed a joint session of Congress, launched a military rescue operation and foiled the machinations of the scheming House speaker, all the while conveying the cool glamour of, well, Geena Davis.

Her Gallup Poll ratings -- make that the Nielsens -- are doing well, too. The series is the most-watched new show this season.

Female politicians on the other coast are having a tougher time, though. Two decades after Geraldine Ferraro seemed to break the glass ceiling in American politics, no woman has been nominated or even seriously competed for national office.

"I was one of the big mouths who said, '(Political) tickets will never look the same again,'" says Pat Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman who ran for president two years after Ferraro was nominated for vice president in 1984. "And guess what? They went right back to looking the same."

She calls the White House "the ultimate tree house with a 'No Girls Allowed' sign on it."

Some voters remain resistant -- a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll found that one in three doubt their neighbors are ready for a woman in the Oval Office -- and female politicians remain much more reluctant than men to run, even when they have equivalent experience and come from powerhouse states.

Advocates say that is about to change with an emerging generation of voters and officeholders. For one thing, younger voters care less about a candidate's gender. One in four Americans 65 and older said they wouldn't vote for a female president; just one in 20 of those under 30 held that view.

And New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 57, has become the first woman to lead a presidential field in national polls and to command a fundraising base that ensures she could compete for the long haul. She defers questions about a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008, saying she's focused first on her Senate re-election contest next year.

Condi for president?

Among Republicans, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 50, ranks a close third in the GOP field for 2008, behind former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain. The fact that Rice hasn't expressed any intention of running hasn't deterred a small group of devotees who are organizing for the campaign they hope she'll make.

They raised $4,000 to air a TV ad on her behalf on WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H. -- the state that holds the first presidential primary -- during, of course, the premiere of Commander in Chief.

"Voters are far more used to seeing women in political leadership positions, and we're certainly in a far better place than we've ever been in either party," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "There's the potential for a kind of breakthrough year in 2008."

But women continue to face hurdles in seeking the Oval Office. Asked if they would vote for a qualified woman for president, 13% of Americans in a USA TODAY Poll last month said no -- including 16% of women, 10% of men.

That's about double the percentage who ruled out voting for a Jew, black or Catholic the last time those questions were asked, in 2003.

What's more, some of the 86% who said they would vote for a woman probably didn't mean it, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Those surveyed "feel some social pressure to say the 'acceptable' response," he says, and may want to reflect the nation's aspirations as a land of opportunity.

The 34% who said "most of my neighbors" wouldn't vote for a female president may have given a more candid measure of the public's views.

The White House Project, which advocates the election of a female president, asked a similar question in a poll last month by Roper Public Affairs. Eight in 10 said they would be comfortable with a woman as president. But they split 48%-48% when asked whether "our society today" would be comfortable with that prospect.

If the playing field isn't level, it isn't nearly as steep as it used to be. The Gallup Poll first asked about a female president in 1937, prompted by speculation about the political ambitions of a powerful first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Then, two-thirds of Americans said they wouldn't vote for a woman for president. By the 1950s, a narrow majority said they would. In 1984, when Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale chose Ferraro as his running mate, the public by more than 4-to-1 said they would vote for a woman.

The trend toward increasing acceptance had stalled by 1987, though. For the past two decades, views have stayed about the same.

'Men should be in charge'

"I don't believe a woman should be in charge," says Brandy Ruliffson, 24, a stay-at-home mother of three in Allen, Texas, who was among those called in the USA TODAY survey. "Men should be in charge of that stuff."

Daniel Morales, 67, a retired sheet-metal worker in Montebello, Calif., says, "I would vote for a woman if the circumstances were right, if it was the right woman, absolutely." But some of his neighbors wouldn't, he says. "It's the old sexist attitudes, that men are the only ones that can run things."

Women have made incremental progress in winning some political jobs. Women now hold 16% of the nation's governorships, 15% of the seats in the U.S. House and 14% of those in the U.S. Senate.

And women have held the top job in other major democracies: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir among them. On Monday, a month-long political deadlock was broken in Germany with a deal that will make conservative leader Angela Merkel the first female chancellor there.

But women have been more likely to reach the pinnacle of power in countries with parliamentary systems of government where legislators, not voters, choose their leader. And the fact that the U.S. president is commander in chief of the world's dominant military continues to raise concerns among some voters when they consider the prospect of a woman.

"Certainly things have changed in the last 20 years in voters' perceptions whether women can do the job," says Amy Walter, a campaign analyst with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "But there's still an inherent nervousness on the part of voters to put women in as the ultimate decision-maker. Control of the National Guard and border security, those sorts of traditionally male jobs -- that's where I think voters consciously or unconsciously have difficulties with women candidates."

In the USA TODAY poll, Americans by 2-to-1 said a female president would be better able to handle domestic policy. But by nearly 2-to-1, they said a man would be better able to handle national security.

"That whole issue of 'Can a woman be tough enough?' has plagued women candidates," says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project. "That's starting to change. We've had experience with Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright as secretary of State. (Shuttle commander) Eileen Collins lands on Earth and looks like she just took a Ferris wheel ride. Those things change the perception of what women can do."

Even TV portrayals of fictional women in positions of power can make a difference, she says. "We need a woman mayor on CSI and a woman police chief on Law & Order."

In the Roper poll, about eight in 10 Americans said they would be "very comfortable" with women as members of Congress, presidents of universities, editors of newspapers, heads of charities and CEOs of businesses. But only 55% said they would be very comfortable with a woman as president.

Just two occupations showed more discomfort with having a woman in the top job. One was being coach of a professional sports team. The other was being a general in the military.

Reluctant contenders

Resistance by voters isn't the only reason no woman has advanced to the top national office. Reluctance by women to compete has played a part, too.

"When a guy gets elected to the Senate or the governor's mansion, he wakes up the next morning and says to himself, 'You're presidential material,'" says Ferraro, who works for an international consulting firm based in New York.

Newly elected women don't seem to do that, but maybe they should, she says. "We have to get women to not be so risk-averse and move in and do this thing." When she ran for vice president and lost two decades ago, she says, she assumed some woman would run for national office and win before the 20th century was over.

"Men have a certain sense of entitlement that they could be president of the United States," Walsh says. "Little boys grow up thinking, 'I could be president of the United States,' but that's not necessarily true for little girls. It's still something that feels out of the realm of possibility."

That could be, of course, because it's never happened.

A study presented last month by two Notre Dame political scientists, Christina Wolbrecht and David Campbell, studied the political aspirations of adolescent girls in 27 nations. Girls in countries that had more women in elected office were more likely to envision themselves as voters, activists -- and candidates -- when they were adults.

The women who have made major-party bids for president can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, in 1964; Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., in 1972; Schroeder in 1986; and former senator Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., and former Transportation and Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, in 2004.

For 2008, 10 of the 86 male senators have taken steps toward presidential campaigns; Clinton is the only one of the 14 female senators positioned to run. Six of the nation's 42 male governors say they may run; none of the eight female governors has.

In other words, men who hold the offices that traditionally have been launching pads for presidential campaigns are three times more likely to be considering bids than women in those posts.

One question is whether the next generation of female officeholders -- for instance, some of the up-and-coming women who now hold statewide elected offices from lieutenant governor to railroad commissioner -- will envision their career arcs more like men do.

Balancing acts

"I'm not running in '08, but certainly I've thought about it," says Kay Bailey Hutchison, 62, a three-term Republican senator from Texas. "I don't in any way feel I can't pursue the presidency. I feel it is open, and if I have the right ideas and am the best candidate, I could win. I do think the barriers are broken."

But she decided against running. After adopting two young children, she wasn't willing to commit to the time on the road that the presidential primaries demand.

Blanche Lincoln, 45, a two-term Democratic senator from Arkansas, first looks taken aback, then amused when asked if she has thought about running for president. She says the notion has never crossed her mind.

"I think women look at all they have to deal with, whether it's raising a family or taking care of aging parents," she says. "That's a huge issue for women, to see how extended they are." She retired from the House when she was pregnant with twins, then ran for the Senate when they were 2. They're 9 now.

Still, in Hollywood's version, President Allen manages to juggle her White House duties while rearing teenage twins and a 6-year-old daughter, not to mention dealing with a husband who's befuddled by the unfamiliar role of First Gentleman.

The balancing act she faces is one of the major themes Commander in Chief will explore, series creator Rod Lurie says.

While the initial story lines center on Allen as the first female president, Lurie predicts that the novelty will wear off.

The fact that Allen is the first political independent to hold the presidency is likely to have more staying power, he says.

"She's going to be a female president for a year," he predicts. "Then she'll just be president."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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