When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Moon on July 20, 1969, he said it was “One small step for a man, one giant leap forward for mankind.” The other day, after over 200 years, the United States of America finally had a female president. Although Kamala Harris’ term as president lasted only 1 hour and 25 minutes, it did mark a unique moment in American history.
What has taken so long? There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that forbids a woman from being president, although the list of qualifications in the Constitution refers to “he”. Just look around the world to compare: Margaret Thatcher was the first female prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990; Angela Merkel has been chancellor of Germany since 2005. Golda Meier was Prime Minister of Israel and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan. Jacinda Ardern is now the Prime Minister of New Zealand and there are numerous female presidents.
Switzerland has had eight female presidents since 1998. It is way ahead of its sister republic. The indispensable, exceptional country is negatively exceptional in this regard.
What about history? Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile, has been considered the last true pharaoh of Egypt. She ruled the cradle of civilization from 51-30 BC. Forget the movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and stories of her love life. She was supposed to have been an intellectual, multilingual, and loved by the people. A true role model.
And Catherine the Great? She was the Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796. During her time in power, the Russian Empire expanded and became one of the major powers in Europe. She encouraged the arts and remains a pivotal figure in Russian history. Another role model.
More could be said about outstanding female political leaders in history and around the world, but the question remains why there has been no woman president of the United States. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1920, gave all Americans the right to vote. That’s over 100 years ago. And women make up at least 50% of the population. One hour and twenty-five minutes of a female president is not impressive in over 100 years of women having the right to vote and over 200 years after the first presidential election.
Much can be said for and against Kamala Harris as vice-president. Recently, her aides have expressed frustration with her role and rumors spread about her tense relationship with President Biden. Being vice-president is not a glamorous job and Biden gave her the unenviable tasks of dealing with the migration problem on the southern border as well as the right to vote. Not simple assignments. But the general point is that American citizens have been reluctant to elect a female president. And Harris is the first female vice-president.
Is Switzerland any better? The 1848 modern Swiss constitution did not give women the right to vote. It took 123 years for women to get the right to vote in Switzerland compared to 133 years in the United States. And they say the Swiss are slow!
The first Swiss woman federal councillor was Elisabeth Kopp in 1984, only 13 years after woman had the right to vote. The first woman president of Switzerland was Ruth Dreifuss in 1998. A reporter for the New York Times wrote then: “Her election to the Cabinet was considered a breakthrough for women in the traditional male Swiss political structure. Thousands of women had rallied in the street in 1993 to protest after Parliament rejected another woman whose personal style was considered more controversial.” This “breakthrough” from a woman reporter on the paper of record in a country which still has to elect a woman president.
Whereas the system of elected presidents in Switzerland and the United States are quite different, the fact that the United States has not had a female president is a shocking statistic. Kamala Harris’ 85 minutes as president is a reminder that the United States is well behind other countries, such as Switzerland, in gender equality.