The Vice President, or the President’s Office Wife

Besides Representative Pelosi and the three female secretaries of state, the women who have come closest to actually serving as president are the two major-party nominees for vice president: Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin.

Ferraro (above) ran as Democrat Walter Mondale’s vice president in 1984 against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ferraro grew up in New York City, graduated from Fordham law school, and, from 1973 to 1978, served as assistant district attorney in Queens, prosecuting sex crimes, child abuse, domestic violence, and crimes against the elderly. In 1978, Ferraro ran for Congress with the campaign slogan “Finally a Tough Democrat.” She won handily.

Like Margaret Chase Smith, Ferraro combined a pleasing feminine exterior—smart dresses and pearls—with tough stances against crime and in favor of the military. Headlines of her candidacy often included the phrase “tough lady.”

Ferraro was also a fierce advocate for women and women’s rights, supporting both the Equal Rights Amendment and the Women’s Economic Equity Act, and she later served on the board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Like Woodhull, however, Ferraro was plagued by scandal, most of which related to her husband’s business activities and alleged ties to the mob (charges that she denied but which continued to haunt her throughout her career).

Twenty-four years later and from the other side of the political spectrum, Sarah Palin (right) also combined feminine attractiveness with hawkish talk about crime and foreign policy. Running in 2008 as the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with John McCain, Palin’s tough-but-pretty persona and anti-feminist agenda failed to register with the majority of voters. But she catalyzed Tea Party members and her outraged outsider strategy “paved the way for [Donald] Trump,” if not for other female candidates.

Since the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, female candidates have been elected to Congress and governorships in record numbers (though women still have a long way to go to reach parity—in 2016, six out of 50 governors are women, 20 out of 100 Senators are women, and only 84 out of 435 members of the House are women).

Why not president?

One traditional answer has been lack of military service. In the era in which male presidential candidates were often war heroes and in which women could not serve in combat, this answer made some sense. But today, when the past three male presidents were not war heroes (and in each case defeated war heroes) and when women are slowly but surely entering combat roles, this answer seems unsatisfactory.

In addition to biased media coverage and deeply entrenched sexism, others speculate that the U.S. has not yet elected a woman president because, unlike many other nations with elected female leaders, America was never a monarchy and thus has no precedent of a queen.

Women in the White House, But Only on TV

Without historical images of women rulers, Americans turn to popular culture for visual depictions of women presidents. The actor Dennis Haysbert played an African American president on the popular Fox show “24” and claimed that this portrayal helped pave the way for the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Some media observers agree.

What about female presidents in popular culture? The short answer is that, for the most part, women appear mainly as vice presidents.

One of the best depictions of the double standard(s) facing women candidates for high office was the 2000 Rod Lurie film “The Contender.” In this Oscar-nominated drama, Joan Allen (below, left) plays a Senator who is nominated to fill the office of vice president after he is assassinated, until photos emerge that appear to depict her engaging in raunchy sex at a college party.

Lurie followed up with the ABC show “Commander in Chief” starring Geena Davis (above, right) which ran for one season in 2005-2006. In this series Davis’s character, MacKenzie Allen, also begins as vice president. The dying president urges her to step down and let a “more qualified” candidate fill his shoes, but Allen refuses. The show was canceled, its poor ratings often compared against those of ABC’s concurrent hit “Desperate Housewives.”

Unlike Davis’s MacKenzie Allen, Julia Louis Dreyfus’s (below, left) vice president (Selina Meyer) does get to become president on the acclaimed HBO series “Veep.”

It does not work out so well for the female vice president on “Scandal,” however, who sees her hopes to unseat the president dashed. In 2014-2015, Alfre Woodard (above, right) starred as the first African American female president on the NBC series “State of Affairs;” it too was canceled after just one season. 

On screen and in reality, it seems that Americans are more comfortable with the idea of women serving as vice president, rather than as president. This may be because the vice president functions sort of like the president’s so-called office wife. 

Presidents select their vice presidents in part to balance out their own deficiencies. Vice presidents go places the president doesn’t want to go to, talk to people the president doesn’t want to talk to, and do the “less important” things around the (White) House. Such tasks are traditionally gendered female which may make voters more comfortable seeing a woman in this supportive, helper position.

Will 2016 Be the Year of the Woman President?

For Americans who are interested in having a woman president, what does all this mean?

Historical examples reveal, not surprisingly, that female candidates are held to a higher moral standard than are male candidates; they are much more heavily scrutinized in gender-biased ways by their colleagues, the media, and voters; they are often held accountable for the scandals of their husbands.

They tend to fare better when they run as feminine but tough on crime and/or pro-military, rather than as overtly feminist; and voters seem most comfortable with a Virgin Mary sort of female candidate—attractive and maternal, but not sexual.

Yet Shirley Chisholm’s revolutionary and inclusive campaign for “the people” generated more enthusiasm and more delegates than any other female candidate for president prior to Hillary Clinton.

And women presidential candidates, with the possible exception of Smith (who did argue on behalf of women in the military), have also used this very public platform to successfully generate national discussions of women’s issues, even if, or maybe because, they knew they were unlikely to win.

Furthermore, since 2000, at least one woman has run for president in at least one of the two major parties’ primaries: Elizabeth Dole (2000), Carol Mosely Braun (2004), Hillary Rodham Clinton (2008), Michelle Bachman (2012), and both Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina (below) in 2016. In contrast, no woman ran for a major party nomination for president in the 1990s. The train is coming.

History also reveals that the extension of rights to African American men tends to be followed by the extension of rights to women, white and black. So, even though President Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008, his election might in fact herald the election of a woman very soon.

Overall, history shows that the momentum to elect a woman president is building, internally within female candidates, externally within at least a significant portion of the electorate, and in popular culture.

Now if only there were a woman running for president who combined the successful characteristics of the previous female presidential contenders: a reforming feminist, who entered politics via her husband; a woman who articulated a tough stance on foreign policy while wearing make-up and pearls; and a woman who had previously served in a helping capacity to the president and/or tops in the line of succession to the presidency.

Maybe, if a female candidate embodied these historical trends and characteristics, 2016 might indeed be the year that the U.S. elects its first female president.