My Turn: Is it time for a woman? Yes, it is

By Madeleine Kunin

April 1, 2007

A 9-year-old girl was taking a tour through the Vermont Statehouse recently, scanning the portraits of the men. When she came upon mine, she exclaimed, "Finally, a woman. It's about time."

The question the country will answer in the next two years is, "Is it time for a woman president?"

There have been several significant firsts for women recently.

When Harvard announced that its next president would be a woman, Drew Gilpin Faust, the halls of academia were shaken. Only two years ago Harvard was caught in a contentious debate about whether women could be serious scientists, and now a woman is at the helm.

With Nancy Pelosi at the podium, wielding the gavel, all those 9-year-old girls know that the United States Congress is no longer a man's world. It's as if the sign in the tree fort that had been scrawled, "Girls, keep out," had been replaced with, "Women are Welcome."

Families who visit the Vermont Statehouse see Gaye Symington in command, one of four female speakers in the country. They also see a legislative body that has the highest percentage of women in the nation.

Times have changed since I was elected governor in 1984, the fourth woman in the country to be elected in her own right. In my campaigns for governor I never asked people to vote for me because I was a woman. They elected me three times because they thought I could do the job. Yet the underlying question was, "Are we ready for a woman governor?"

More women are "ready" for leadership because fathers and mothers have the same expectations for their daughters and their sons. The dream "someday you might want to be president" is out there for both boys and girls to grasp. Even my own 8-year-old granddaughter asked me if girls could be president. You can easily guess what my answer was.

Still, the gender question remains, especially when we consider a serious female candidate for president. Polls don't tell us much (64 percent recently said yes on a woman president). Do people mean they would vote for any woman, or for Hillary Clinton?

Most of us, men and women alike, continue to harbor some gender stereotypes, even if we think we are liberated from them. When I ran for governor, the big question in people's minds, according to our polls, was the "toughness" question. Is she tough enough to make the hard decisions?

That question is multiplied many times when a woman runs for president, particularly at a time of global terrorism. A woman president must be tough, yes. But not too tough. She also has to be feminine.

We don't like it when women come on too strong. Women who do are often called harsh, brittle, or, the all-time favorite -- hysterical. Women in top leadership roles are allowed a narrow space between the spectrum that stretches from feminine on one end to masculine on the other.

Electability. It is a question asked of all candidates, but I suspect that there are different undercurrents when the term is used in regard to a female candidate for president. It can only be answered if we can envision a woman as commander in chief, a woman as the most powerful leader in the world.

When I first walked into the governor's ceremonial office in the Statehouse, the morning after I was elected, I looked at the dark portraits of the men who had preceded me. I thought one or two of the portraits began to tilt. No doubt they questioned, what was I doing there?

But now my portrait hangs with all the rest, and a 9-year-old girl can say, "It's about time."

It is possible that we will hang the first portrait of a woman president in the White House, and some young woman will walk by and say, "It's about time."

Madeleine May Kunin of Burlington is a former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and governor of Vermont.