The Ascent of a Woman


SOMETHING happens when Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton enters a crowded room. People quickly draw a circle around her, cameras begin to flash frenetically and the entire center of gravity of the place moves toward the woman in the pantsuit.

It was like that at a gala dinner celebrating female leaders here Thursday night, but with a difference: Mrs. Clinton was not the presidential woman everyone was there to see.

Instead, she took the stage to acknowledge Geena Davis, the actress who played an American president in the television show "Commander in Chief," and then she welcomed the guest of honor, Michelle Bachelet, the newly inaugurated president of Chile.

For a brief through-the-looking-glass moment, Mrs. Clinton had to defer — to a fictional female president, and to a foreign real one.

"Geena Davis starred in one of my absolute favorite dramas — of course I'm talking about 'A League of Their Own,' " Mrs. Clinton said in her introduction, referring to the 1992 chick flick about an all-female baseball team, drawing titters from a crowd of political women all too familiar with the senator's presumed presidential aspirations. Of Ms. Bachelet, Mrs. Clinton said, "I was told that she was running for president and I thought to myself, 'Good for her.' "

The appearance put into relief a fundamental reality of the looming Clinton candidacy. No matter how singular a figure she may be, Mrs. Clinton, if she runs for president, will do so in a country that trails behind a growing list of others in electing women to the highest office, a country that recently dumped its Hollywood version ("Commander in Chief" was suspended from the ABC lineup last fall, then canceled outright last month). Although polls show most Americans say they are willing to vote for a woman — more than 90 percent of those surveyed would do so for the right candidate — far fewer, about 55 percent, believe the country as a whole is ready for a female president. Broadly, the data suggest that there is a lingering awkwardness toward women at the tip-top of political power, both on screen and off.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the world. For decades now, countries from Pakistan to Israel to India to Britain have been elevating women to the role of chief executive, a phenomenon that Mrs. Clinton's supporters are studying closely as they lay the groundwork for 2008.

Entire organizations — including the White House Project, which sponsored the dinner for Ms. Bachelet — have been formed to figure out why the United States has yet to elect a woman as president, with a particular emphasis on examining the role of the media and popular culture.

There are countless theories, chief among them that the right candidate hasn't come along, which would seem to explain everything and nothing. Invoking this reasoning, some of Mrs. Clinton's detractors maintain that if she loses, her sex will have little to do with it — that it will be more about Iraq, or Clinton fatigue, or what they call her polarizing effect.

Those who study the larger trend, however, say there are concrete reasons no woman has ever come close to winning the American presidency. There are fewer political dynasties here of the sort that have given women the stamp of authority elsewhere, like the Bhuttos in Pakistan or the Ghandis in India. (Mrs. Clinton, of course, is a product of a mini-dynasty).

The electoral system here is more challenging than a parliamentary one, in which a woman (Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Golda Meir in Israel) is elected only by members of her own party, not the entire electorate.

Then there is the political pipeline in the United States, which now, with 8 female governors out of 50, and 14 female senators of 100, still offers a limited number of experienced candidates for the presidency.

"There are very few women in the pool when you think about it," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "The pool that candidates tend to come from in this country are U.S. senators and governors, and until recently we've had very few women in those positions. That's something that's really held us back. It's the whole pipeline that's been problematic, and frankly, our pipeline hasn't been doing that well lately."

Yet such statistics, long the foundation for conventional wisdom about the plight of women in politics, may not fully explain the resistance. Experts who scratch their heads over how many women are elected as chief executives elsewhere — including Ms. Bachelet, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and Angela Merkel in Germany — point to sociological and cultural reasons why Mrs. Clinton is one of only a few women to have been viewed seriously as a presidential candidate. Ms. Walsh said American society has "not yet raised a generation of girls growing up and thinking, 'I can be president of the United States someday.' "

Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, who spent years before "Commander in Chief" urging Hollywood to make a fictional account of a female president, said the public is still putting women on pedestals — and will only accept a female president whom voters consider flawless, more so than a man, an almost impossible standard.

"Frankly, the social and cultural ideal of women in America hasn't shifted as fast as the realities of women's roles," Ms. Wilson said. "When one woman is up there, we start to project all this stuff onto her of, 'Is she perfect?' That's why I was hoping Geena Davis would be on television long enough to make some really bad mistake."

And yet it is in Hollywood where some of the strongest resistance toward Mrs. Clinton can be found these days. Increasingly politicized, overwhelmingly liberal (and, for whatever reason, frequently asked to express a political choice), the entertainment industry has not embraced Mrs. Clinton as warmly as it did her husband. Some fear she would be the third Democratic loser in a row: George Clooney recently called her "the most polarizing figure in American politics," later saying that he meant it as a neutral observation rather than a warning.

Other celebrities have given voice to more far-flung fears. Sharon Stone said in a magazine interview that was widely repeated in gossip columns that Mrs. Clinton, age 58, still has "sexual power" and should not run for president until it's gone. Kathleen Turner, interviewed while in London starring in a play, expressed her doubts about Mrs. Clinton's presumed candidacy, saying Americans "don't want a celebrity woman president."

Martha Stewart, for her part, recently tried to balance the score, saying on CNBC that people "misunderstand Hillary and her stability," which has "helped keep the government stable."

Perhaps the most forceful Clinton criticism in Hollywood has come from liberals opposed to her vote authorizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The actress Susan Sarandon, who went so far as to endorse Mrs. Clinton's long-shot anti-war Democratic opponent for her Senate re-election in November, Jonathan Tasini, accused the senator of lacking principles. Ms. Sarandon said in an interview on British television that she would prefer "somebody that really has a moral bottom line, be they a man or a woman."

Yet to Mrs. Clinton's supporters, as well as some students of gender and politics, therein may lie the rub. As much as any other factor, they say, women who are seen as tough, especially in military affairs, have dominated elections around the globe. Certainly that was true for Mrs. Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who warned her allies not to "go wobbly" on her, and Mrs. Meir, who led Israel through the Yom Kippur war of 1973. And the triumph by Ms. Bachelet, a former defense minister in Chile whose father was an Air Force general, has been widely interpreted as a signal that female candidates require an extra show of strength.

But will Americans be seeking a tough leader at the next presidential juncture? Must a woman really be hawkish — as Ms. Davis's character was on "Commander in Chief"? Or will voters, as the prominent commentator Arianna Huffington maintains, be looking for someone with much less swagger?

"There's no question that art and politics intersect at many points and there have been artistic movie archetypes driving American politics for a long time," said Ms. Huffington, a critic of Mrs. Clinton's, pointing to Hollywood cowboys as the inspiration for the Reagan and Bush presidencies. "My sense of the public, of the zeitgeist, is that people are done with the John Wayne archetype; it is exhausted."

Nonetheless, she added, "I do not believe Hillary is going to be the beneficiary of that."

In her view, Mrs. Clinton is making a mistake by continuing to support the war in Iraq, to the extent that she is mollifying voters nervous about a female candidate.

"I really don't think gender is the issue," Ms. Huffington said. "It depends on how authentic the candidate is. I think that is going to be the key in 2008: I think authenticity and the willingness to stand for something unambiguously, especially on something like the war, will transcend any issue like gender in the red states."

That, at least, is the most idealistic view but so far it is only a concept, in Hollywood, and beyond.

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