The confirmation of Ursula von der Leyen, the former Minister of Defense of Germany from 2013-2019, as the first woman European Commission President is a stark reminder that the United States has never had a female president in its history, let alone a female Secretary of Defense. Look around: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany since 2005; Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 2016-2019; Christine Lagarde, Chairman of the International Monetary Fund since 2011 and now President of the European Central Bank. And there are numerous examples of women presidents around the world.
What’s the problem with the United States? If Newsweek headlined “Girls Rule” in 1999 when the U.S. women’s team won the FIFA World Cup, why can’t a woman actually rule in the U.S.? Hillary Clinton certainly won the popular vote in the 2016 election. And let’s not forget Jill Stein who offered to run second to Bernie Sanders if he headed the Green Party ticket in 2016. As the Green Party presidential candidate, Stein received 1,457,222 votes or 1.06% of the popular vote. Now several woman candidates are running for the Democratic Party nomination: Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gobbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren.
According to a recent study, 52% of Americans say they would feel "very comfortable" having a female president. But is merely running or winning the popular vote enough? The ultimate glass ceiling, being sworn in as president on January 20, has not been broken.
In 2015, half of the eight-member Ivy League schools had female presidents: Elizabeth Garrett at Cornell University, Christina Paxson (Brown University), Drew Faust (Harvard University) and Amy Gutmann (University of Pennsylvania). And in the private sector, women have held top leadership positions: Irene Rosenfeld (Kraft Foods), Ginni Rometty (IBM), Patricia Russo (Lucent), Indra Nooyi (PepsiCO), Meg Whitman (Hewlett Packard), Ursula Burns (Xerox).
So if in academia and the private sector women have reached the highest echelons, why can’t a woman take the oath of the highest office? In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate representing a major American political party (Democrat). After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, has there been any real progress? In 2019, Kamala Harris is often asked if she would like to be the vice-president candidate for Joe Biden. “I think that, sure, if people want to speculate about running mates, I encourage that ― because I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate,” she has answered.
Many will say that having a woman as president will take time. After all, the first presidential election was in 1788-9 and it was not until 1920 that women could vote in all federal elections. It took 132 years and a constitutional Amendment. In Switzerland, it was not until 1971 that women had the right to vote at the national level. But now, 48 years later, three of the seven members of the Federal Council are women, and one is the Minister of Defense.
The United States is an outlier when it comes to women in power in public office. While not favoring a specific candidate or espousing a quota system, I find it revealing how conservative Americans have been about gender equality at the highest elected level. The election of Ms. Von der Leyen is a good reminder that the self-proclaimed leader of the Free World is behind the times, minimally on the issue of female leadership.