Can a Woman Be President?

Political Science Professor Discusses Challenges Clinton Faces


Published: Febrary 14, 2008

FCLC—American women were given the right to vote in 1920. It took decades for America to finally answer the question of whether women should be allowed to vote. Nearly a century later, America finds itself facing a different question: Can a woman be president? The Observer spoke with Susan Beck, associate professor of political science at FCLC, who has taught courses on women in politics, about the challenges Senator Hillary Clinton faces and whether or not America is ready to vote for a female president.

THE OBSERVER: Since Senator Hillary Clinton entered this race, many people have asked the question: Is America ready for a female president? Exactly what does it take for America to be ready?

SUSAN BECK: Historically, women have had a very difficult time presenting themselves as the appropriate candidate to be Commander in Chief. Clinton has tried to present herself as strong and capable of leading this country as Commander in Chief, and she has been pretty successful in doing that. I don’t know what it means for the country to be ready. The polls indicate that there is hesitancy among a segment of the public to vote for a woman, no matter who that woman would be. You can’t really rely on polls. She will definitely have to put up with some people not voting for her because she is a woman. On the other hand, there may be some who are ready to vote for her, who otherwise may not vote for the nominee in the Democratic Party.

THE OBSERVER: Why do you believe America has been behind other countries in terms of having a female leader?

SB: In some cases, if you look at leadership in Scandinavian countries, they’ve always been more open and have accepted women in the workplace. They’ve been more willing to have policies that help women enter the workplace, not keep their other jobs as homemakers and mothers and go out and take a second job, but the state has been more willing to encourage equal responsibilities.

In more traditional cultures like India, which had a female head, women have been successful in those venues when they’ve been connected to prominent families. [Clinton] is connected to a prominent family—and it may help her or it may hurt her, we’re not clear. There is evidence it may hurt her. But in more traditional cultures such as with Benazir Bhutto or Indira Ghandi, it has actually helped women.

THE OBSERVER: A few weeks ago, Clinton had an “emotional moment” that was largely publicized. Do women in high-level politics need to maintain a level of femininity or do they need to shed their femininity and imitate the image of their male counterparts?

SB: This is her problem. For a woman running for president of the U.S., she has to show she is strong so people will believe she can be Commander in Chief, but if she does that—and Hillary has tried to do that—she gets criticized for being like steel and being like the “iron lady,” and so she’s considered to be not feminine enough. And if she tears up, and shows that side, then she’s shown to be too soft. So this is the predicament for women running for president and the media seized on that moment, which may have ended up helping her. I don’t think we can ever figure that out.

THE OBSERVER: Polls and statistics have shown that a large majority of Clinton’s supporters are white women, and a large majority of Senator Barack Obama’s supporters are African-American. What do you believe is the position of white men?

SB: I think that historically, white men have never supported Hillary Clinton. So are white men going to vote for Obama because they don’t like Clinton or because they like Obama? I don’t know the answer to that question. But there clearly is a gender gap in terms of her support.

THE OBSERVER: How has the significance of the female vote changed from previous elections?

SB: Historically in the general elections, there’s no doubt that more women come out to vote. There are more women in the electorate and they vote in higher numbers, so they clearly can make the difference. If Clinton is winning the women’s vote, and women continue to show up in large proportions, that advantages her. So even if Obama wins the black vote or the male vote, there are fewer of them voting and so he can’t make up that difference. However, because of the racial split, she may not see that advantage in the next few primaries coming up because they have large African-American populations.

THE OBSERVER: What can we predict for Clinton if she does win the presidency?

SB: I think she will be closely scrutinized and heavily criticized by her opponents. I don’t expect that her gender will necessarily give her difficulty on the world stage, in that she’s so familiar with other leaders and is quite knowledgeable of other places. But there’s no doubt that should she be elected politically—and I’m not sure she can be—I think she will have some difficult political times. There’s no doubt she’s more experienced. If she can make that front and center of the primary season as well as the general elections, she’s got a shot. But if the other issues bubble to the top, whatever they may be, her persona, her history, or whatever it may be, she’s going to have a difficult time.