It is a strange truth. Nineteen years after Benazir Bhutto was elected in Pakistan, thirty three years after Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK and a full forty six years after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, there has still never been a woman US president.
Bearing in mind, two of these three mentioned above (Gandhi and Bhutto) were subsequently assassinated, perhaps they are not the best example but there are, of course, many others. Cory Aquino in the Philippines, Golda Meir in Israel and Angela Merkel and Julia Gillard both currently Chancellor of Germany and Prime Minister of Australia respectively.
Britons should not be too smug on the subject. As time goes on, Mrs Thatcher’s eleven years in Downing Street look more and more like an historical aberration. Good news some might say. But from an equality viewpoint, it isn’t. A woman prime minister need not be as divisive or as damaging as Thatcher was but we don’t seem to be anywhere near finding this out for sure even after the surge in women MPs since 1997. Nobody looks even close to leading any of the three major parties save perhaps Labour’s Yvette Cooper (or at a stretch, Harriet Harman).
So what about the US? Presidents in the US come to power by two means: as vice presidents who succeed a president to office after they have either died or resigned or (more commonly) through election in their own right.
There have been no women vice presidents so far although two have been picked as running mates by candidates for the two major parties in the past. Geraldine Ferraro was picked as running mate by Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 but is thought to have had little impact on Mondale’s campaign which was already well on course to suffer a massive 49 state to one defeat to President Ronald Reagan.
Governor Sarah Palin’s selection by Republican candidate Senator John McCain four years ago, in contrast, briefly revived a flagging campaign. Palin’s novelty and relative youth excited the party base. McCain, unlike Mondale, actually had a shot at defeating his opponent. And as a man in his seventies, it was hardly too far-fetched to imagine Palin could soon be president herself.
But the excitement didn’t last. Palin soon emerged as a totally unsuitable candidate, as ignorant as she was gaffe-prone. Despite being a former beauty contest entrant (coincidentally in 1984, the same year as the Mondale-Ferraro campaign) for once there seemed little sexist about her downfall. McCain lost and despite the angry denials by the idiotic John Bolton on the BBC’s 2008 election coverage, Palin helped him lose.
The real loser in 2008 was perhaps not McCain or Palin, however, but Hillary Clinton. Had she ran in 2004 against an enfeebled Bush she might have won. Even the unimpressive Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry came close to toppling Bush that year.
Instead, she waited until the race was clear of incumbents in 2008. This would have worked normally but she completely misjudged the strength of Obama’s candidacy and arrogantly fought the election as if the nomination was hers by right. The voters reacted against both this and her support for the war in Iraq.
It is doubtful she would have won the November election anyway. There has long been a strong entrenched hostility towards her since her husband’s first presidential campaign in 1992 and much of this undeniably has a strong misogynist element. She would also have been hampered by the Whitewater scandal and other baggage from the Clinton years.
But we’ll probably never know. After all, Obama’s 2008 victory was certainly against the odds too. It seems unlikely now that the secretary of state, already well into her sixties, will ever sit in the White House as president.
2012 has thus far proven a less thrilling race with Obama less dazzling than in 2008 and Governor Mitt Romney clearly a loser from the outset.
Perhaps it’s a shame Sarah Palin did not run this time after all. At least it would have been amusing.