Friday, January 14, 2011

Birthright Challenge: Can a Woman be President?

Published in Centre Daily Times, State College, PA (May 22, 2004)

This past February, my daughter came to me with an urgent question, “Amma, can a girl be President?” I wondered what had precipitated this doubt.

It turned out that one of the boys in her kindergarten class had declared that “girls cannot be presidents.” The girls in the class had disagreed and asked the teacher, who told them that a girl could indeed be president. Now my daughter wanted my verdict.

I told her that a girl could be anything she chose to be, and that included being president. My daughter was happy with my answer, declared she did not want to be president anyway, and moved on to something else.

But I could not move on. I did not want five year old girls or boys to believe that there were limits to the possibilities of girls’ lives.

I thought about my kindergarten years in India. I never had to hear such statements because India had a female Prime Minister during that time, Indira Gandhi. She was the democratically elected Prime Minister of India from 1966-1977 and then again from 1980-1984. During my kindergarten years, there was another female leader in the Asian subcontinent: Srimavo Bandaranaike, the elected Prime Minister of India’s neighbor, Sri Lanka, who held the post from 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000.

Considering my childhood experiences, I found it ironic that in 2004, in the USA, little children were still not sure about whether “girls could be presidents.”

Since there were no female US presidents that I could summon up, I went to the Internet in my quest for answers. I did a search on Google for female Heads of State and chose to visit developed by Martin Christensen, a Danish journalist. The categories beckoned to me tantalizingly: women leaders currently in office, heads of government, ministers, chairs of parliament, party and local leaders by country, and by time period.

The accompanying photographs were inspiring by their very existence. My daughter and I savored the variety of faces, the colors, the biographies, and we enjoyed pronouncing the names of female leaders from all continents. When I was finally ready to move on, my daughter was not. She visited every subheading, as if the next biography or photograph would give her convincing proof that women indeed could be elected presidents and prime ministers.

Thanks to her excitement, I learned and shared some interesting facts with her. That there have been female rulers since antiquity.

That Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka was the first democratically elected female Head of State in the modern world (1960) and Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland was the modern world’s first democratically elected female President (1980).

That, in 1997, when Mary McAleese was elected President of Ireland, five of the six presidential candidates in that race were female.

That, Victoria Chaflin Woodhull, the first female candidate for US president, ran not once, but twice, in 1872 and 1892 and that Belva Ann Bennet McNall Lockwood ran in 1884 and 1881.

That several women have run since then, mostly as outsiders on minor party tickets, and a few as candidates in primary races for the two major party tickets.

A few days after my Internet search for female leaders, I read a letter from a 13-year-old American girl to “Dear Abby.” Her ambitions to be president were laughed at by her male teacher, and one of her male classmates declared that “girls aren’t allowed to be president.”

These situations in our classrooms suggest that the many female presidential candidates since 1874, and the numerous female heads of state from all over the world are not part of our education or our consciousness.

Our schools need to teach our kids that competency has nothing to do with gender or race or ethnicity, that girls can be presidents, that many other countries have elected female leaders, that we did have women leaders of Native American tribes, and that we have several female state governors. And perhaps our kids will then ask us why we have not had a female president yet.

These days, my daughter asks to visit the “female leaders website” almost as often as she asks to visit the PBS Kids website. She recently declared that if she or any other girl becomes president, somebody would write their biographies.

This leads me to imagine an election year where women would run for president, their gender being considered nothing more than an accident of birth. I

imagine a president’s biography, which states her story, notes her successes and failures, and attributes none of them to the fact that she is female. I picture children reading the story, and I imagine a time, when it would be an ordinary day, not an extraordinary one, when several boys and girls decide that they would someday run for president.

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