Women are chronically underrepresented in U.S. politics. Yet TV shows, fictions, and films have leapt ahead of the electoral curve to give us our first female president(s). What messages about women and power do these fictional representations of female politicians send? What connections (if any) can we draw between representation and reality? What challenges do real-life women politicians face as they represent themselves to voters and to the press?
Mary Anne Marsh is a Boston-based political consultant who has worked on many local and national campaigns. She also serves as a Democratic political analyst on the FOX News Channel and on other national and local media.
Ellen Emerson White is the author of many books for children and teens, including the critically acclaimed President’s Daughter series, which chronicles the experiences of a Massachusetts girl whose mother becomes the first female president of the United States.
Moderator: Marah Gubar, Associate Professor of Literature at MIT, is the author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (2009).
MIT associate professor of literature Marah Gubar began the forum by asking the panelists to introduce themselves.
Political consultant Mary Anne Marsh said that she works at a Democratic consulting firm, Dewey Square Group, that specializes in grassroots campaigns, and has done so “before grassroots was cool.” She appears on radio programs as a political analyst, from local radio stations to Radio New Zealand. She gained her political knowledge from working on campaigns “for longer than I’d want to admit,” she said. She has worked with both male and female candidates.
Author Ellen Emerson White said that her job is to “make up stories about things.” When she was 19, she wrote a novel titled The President’s Daughter about the daughter of the first woman president. She has since written three more books about those characters. She was inspired to begin the series when congressional representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York was nominated to run as Vice President with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1984.
Why Don’t We Have a Woman President Yet?
Gubar asked the panelists why they think it has taken so long to get a woman president, and why we still don’t have one.
Marsh said that when she was younger, she never would have thought that the United States wouldn’t have had at least one female President by 2015. Marsh lamented the fact that women are about 51 percent of the population, but make up only a fraction of elected officials and business leaders.
“I think there are lots of reasons for it, but I think it’s very hard to ignore that less qualified men beat very qualified women,” said Marsh. She added that this is true of both Democrats and Republicans. There are many cultural factors that contribute, including the lack of female religious leaders and economic inequality between women and men. Furthermore, “when men run, they only have to deal with their assets or challenges as individuals. When women run, they represent their entire gender,” she said. Marsh pointed out that in the aftermath of the first Democratic primary debate, Hilary Clinton’s hair was discussed more than anyone else’s.
White recalled her excitement when Ferraro was nominated for Vice President. “It was exciting but I don’t think anyone was paying attention,” White said.
Moderator Marah Gubar pointed out that when White first tried to sell The President’s Daughter, her editors told her that the concept of a female president was not believable.
White said that though she had already sold two other books to her editors, “When I came to them with this idea, they said, ‘God no. We can’t possibly make money on that,’” because a woman president is not plausible. Because of that, White worked really hard to create “the most plausible candidate that I thought was electable,” she said. Gubar asked if the character of President Katharine Vaughn Powers was drawn from life or from other cultural sources. White said that when she was in college, she went to many movies, but there were basically none that featured a successful woman politician. There was one called Kisses for My President, in which a woman is elected President, becomes pregnant with her husband, and resigns.
“That was the end of the movie—and it was supposed to be a happy ending,” recalled White wryly. It frustrated her that there was so little popular culture that featured women presidents. White overcame her editors’ reluctance and wrote the book about the Vaughn Powers presidency, which was marketed as young adult fiction because White was 19 at the time and the main character, Meg Powers, was a junior in high school. When the book came out, White 20 years old. She went to a book signing and sat “swinging her legs.” There were many people there who were her mother’s age. Her editor arrived, and people asked where the author was. The editor pointed to White, and the audience reacted with surprise—they thought she was the age of the President in the book, White said.
White observed that when she talks to current college students, they often identify as feminist, giving her hope that we might get another chance at passing the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed to gain enough votes to amend the constitution in the 1970s to protect women’s rights and prevent gender discrimination. Gubar asked Marsh if she agreed. Marsh replied that while it seems that students tend to be more progressive, they don’t take fundamental women’s rights issues, such as abortion and birth control, seriously enough. Marsh worries that students do not realize that such rights could be stripped away, noting that Republican-controlled legislatures do not like Supreme Court rulings or executive orders from the president, and often try to ignore them. She loves the energy that students bring to campaigns, but wishes that they would take fundamental feminist issues more seriously.
Dealing with Sexism in Politics and Pop Culture
Gubar asked Marsh if she could tell some stories from campaigns in which sexism became a factor. Marsh explained that when working with a woman candidate, “It’s all about appearances first and foremost.” Lots of work goes into the candidate’s wardrobe and makeup.
“Whether you like it or not, you have to do it, because you don’t want that to be an issue…You can’t give voters an excuse” to pick on the candidate’s appearance, Marsh said. In contrast, while she has occasionally had to deal with a male candidate’s tie choice, it’s not a full-time job like it is with women candidates, even though male candidates typically have makeup for live debates, she said.
Marsh also remembered working for Democrat Shannon O’Brien when she ran against Mitt Romney for governor. In a debate, the moderator “went after” O’Brien about her views on abortion, seeming to take a side in the debate. Marsh pointed out that more recently, Bernie Sanders’s comment to Clinton that just “shouting” about gun control isn’t enough. Many women, Marsh said, asked why shouting has anything to do with it. Even someone as progressive as Sanders can say things that play off negative stereotypes about women, she said.
White said that it is easy for people to discredit women politicians by saying that they sound “shrill.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone … who says, ‘Oh, I’d vote for a woman, just not that one,’” White said. She would then ask the person—usually a man—who they would vote for, and they would answer that they would vote for the fictional Vaughn Powers. White said people find excuses to dislike women politicians. She said that if Eleanor Roosevelt had run for president, people would have said she is too “strident.” She praised recently elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to have a cabinet with an equal number of women and men, though she wonders when that would happen in the U.S.
How to Elect a Woman President
Gubar asked the panelists how we can get closer to having a woman president. Marsh said that women politicians have always had a harder time raising money because they typically have fewer business connections than men. She thinks that electing more women will help additional women win elections. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s victory over Scott Brown in Massachusetts opened doors for additional women candidates, she said.
Gubar asked if women have any advantages over men in the eyes of voters. Marsh explained that people tend to say in polls that they trust women candidates more, that women are more likely to work with others to get things done. Marsh added that female senators of both parties get together for dinner every six weeks and often collaborate on bipartisan bills. “That’s how it used to be with everybody” in the legislature, she said. The more voters see women working together across the aisle, the more likely they will vote for women politicians, Marsh hoped.
Gubar asked White to describe the plot arc of the Vaughn Powers presidency in her fictional series. White said that, like Aaron Sorkin did in The West Wing, she used dramatic events to keep audiences hooked on the “bigger story” she’s trying to tell. In The West Wing, the president is shot, and in her series there is a kidnapping plot.
White said that in popular culture today, most female presidents and officials were not elected on their own. Some took office as Vice President or by inheriting a husband’s legislative seat. In White’s opinion, there is one other great fictional woman president—Laura Roslin in the TV sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. Yet even this character only gained the Presidency because she was Secretary of Education when the human homeland was destroyed by cyborgs, and she was the only politician in the line of succession senior enough to take office.
“People have trouble imagining the reality of a woman who works her way up the trenches and gives up a lot” to run for President, White said. And many of the female politicians in popular culture are not in realistic fiction, but instead in sci-fi or a comedy like the TV series, Veep. White said that if a realistic series like The West Wing had featured a woman president through her entire campaign, “it would have been groundbreaking.”
Gubar asked Marsh how she got into political consulting. Marsh said that, while some consultants plan to run for office themselves, she decided early on that her contribution would be to get other people elected. “My batting average is pretty good,” she said. There’s nothing better than working on a winning campaign and nothing worse than losing, she added. She argued that while many pundits offer their opinions in the media, only those that have actually worked on campaigns can accurately analyze politics.
Gubar asked if the political analysis world has a gender imbalance. Marsh answered that there are more male political reporters and analysts than women, and that no matter how objective a journalist tries to be, they cannot escape their personal biases. She said that many journalists reported the attendance at a recent Sanders rally to be about 20,000 people. She went and talked to the police, who had actually counted attendees, and was informed that there were no more than 8,000. She asked reporters who their sources were for the estimate, and they replied that the Sanders staff had given them the larger number. Marsh encouraged the audience to “go and find out yourself” what’s going on in politics. She recommended visiting New Hampshire, where residents take politics very seriously.
Gubar asked White to compare the fictional Vaughn Powers to Hilary Clinton. White said that the two women are very different. She said that while Clinton often seems uncomfortable in her skin these days, Vaughn Powers is “more accessible” and has a pretty typical path to politics. “I think the Clintons are so unique,” she said, noting their unusual sway in the Democratic party. Despite that, she is impressed with how Hilary has persevered through sexist “garbage” for decades. White believed she would be a good president for these times because her experience with negativity would allow her to ignore distractions, shut the door to the Oval Office, and get things done. She is disappointed with the amount of polarization in politics.
“We’ve gotten to this weird place where if I disagree with you, I think you’re evil,” said White.
Gubar asked to what extent the media has created this polarization. Marsh said that social media has accelerated the push toward political extremes. The never-ending news cycle, in which news breaks on Twitter 24/7, has amped everything up. Her own way to combat this is to respond courteously to rude emails and tweets, thanking the person for writing and asking them to write again without profanity. She noted that today’s candidates are still adjusting to new technology, and are not used to having iPhones track which hair salon they use.
Marsh said that the Hilary Clinton of the late 1980s would “walk away” with the current race. At the time, Clinton was much more on the ball and willing to challenge people. However, the media’s constant attacks on her have caused her to develop a shell. This is a problem to her candidacy.
“If you don’t like somebody, you’re never going to trust them,” Marsh said.
White said that she is a big fan of Senator Warren because “I believe she is saying what she thinks,” she said. She argued that Trump has a similar appeal—“you think he’s telling you what he thinks” even if it’s stupid, White said. She said that Hilary’s best move would be to “just go for it” and say what she really thinks, not worrying about being taken out of context.
Gubar asked how politicians can get around the paradox of needing to avoid media gaffs while also needing to appear direct and uncoached. White said that she thinks Clinton is starting to hit her stride, and that the more Clinton can say what she thinks, the better. Marsh said that while Clinton’s performance in the Benghazi hearings helped her politically, she thinks that if Clinton had been a man, she would have had more room to be passionate and attack the Republican committee which constantly baited her during the hearings.
Communications Forum Director Emeritus David Thorburn said that he discerned a bias for Clinton on the panel, and asked the panelists to discuss Clinton’s shortcomings.
White said that “we play the cards we have,” and that Clinton has a real chance at the presidency. She noted that we will always find flaws with a woman candidate.
“We could do better, but how long must we wait” for a woman president, White asked. She said that we should have had a woman in the White House a long time ago, and that Clinton is certainly qualified. “She’s that rare bird who speaks extemporaneously in full pages,” observed White.
Marsh challenged Thorburn to ask the same question of Senator Sanders.
“When I listen to you ask that question, I have a hard time imagining you would ask that about a guy,” Marsh said. She pointed out that President Barack Obama, Senator Sanders, and Secretary of State John Kerry all have significant shortcomings but took office anyway. Women frequently lose to substandard men, she said.
Thorburn replied that we should be able to admit that Clinton is a “compromised candidate” even while supporting her as a female candidate.
Marsh said that she has heard such arguments for years, and that we have elected nearly every version of a man to the presidency but never a woman. She pointed out that this means that the majority of decisions that affect women’s lives are made by men, and that we must analyze politics with this in mind.
MIT Course 6 senior Rachel Agyemang asked why other countries have been more progressive in electing female heads of state than the United States.
White said that inequality in women’s pay continues to hold women back—in all fields. She noted that actress Jennifer Lawrence has won many awards but still got paid less than male supporting characters. She argued that we need to prioritize righting this kind of inequality.
White said that she wrote a novel about a woman baseball pitcher good enough for the major leagues. The character gets a lot of garbage for her gender. White said that while women’s soccer got higher ratings than professional basketball or the Stanley Cup, women still lag behind men economically in many other places. For example, she pointed out that the number of women authors winning major literary awards is “miniscule.” She argued that a woman President would cause trickle-down effects to all women seeking to improve their situation.
Gubar asked why feminism remains a “tough sell” to people. Marsh said that conservatives have successfully demonized feminism such that people don’t want to identify as a feminist. She pointed out to the female students in the audience will likely watch their male coworkers graduate to receive higher pay than them. She said that only elected women are actually paid the exact same as men.
CMS/W visiting scholar Marie-Therese Maeder said that in her home country of Switzerland, the religious affiliation of candidates is much less of an issue than it is in the U.S. She asked the panelists why that is, and how religion, gender, and politics intersect.
Marsh said that John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency was a seminal moment, because, as a Roman Catholic, people feared he would take orders from the Pope. The speech he gave about it was perhaps his most important speech. Since then, family values voters and evangelicals have become a major political force, and religion has become a wedge issue. President Obama gave an important speech in 2008 about his pastor in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Marsh argued that people who use religion “as a cudgel” do not live up to their own beliefs in their personal lives, and that the political use of religion as a wedge has been used to keep women out of office. She said that women’s rights issues are everyone’s issues because the majority of women support their family on their own, despite having to take time out to have kids.
An audience member asked about the history of feminism. She noted that in the U.S., feminism remains a grassroots movement, while in places like Norway it has become part of institutions. She wondered if there is a way to have a grassroots campaign that also enters state institutions.
White remembered that when feminists were gathering signatures to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, people tended to respond positively to the actual text of the amendment. But when asked if they supported the ERA or feminism, people responded negatively to those labels. She looked forward to days when people are not put in boxes.
Marsh said that it’s nearly impossible to amend the constitution, and that the ERA could not garner enough signatures in each state in the ’70s and ’80s. She said that we should instead prioritize electing more women to office and working for economic equality for women. Those are less polarizing goals, she said.
Gubar said that it’s unfortunate that reproductive rights became such a polarizing issue and that economic inequality is an easier issue to argue.
Marsh said that if there was a single medical procedure that required a man to get congressional permission to have, men would never stand for it.
MIT News deputy editor Maia Weinstock asked White if representations of women and girls in books for young kids are improving.
White referenced the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which found that there are not enough little girl characters in movies and TV. Davis pushed Disney to include more girl characters so that their movies would more closely resemble the actual world, White said. Even so, “it’s kind of shocking that that would be considered progress,” White said. She noted that in toys made from the Marvel superhero movies, the Black Widow toys don’t do anything interesting while the male superheroes have hammers and other cool accessories.
Marsh said that at the most recent South by Southwest Conference, a panel discussion about misogyny in the video game industry was cancelled after people threatened violence at the conference. Marsh criticized this decision, saying that we need to discuss bullying in gaming.
White said she plays an online game called King of the World, noting that she had experienced sexism there. But when male players began noticing that leading alliances in the game were dominated by women, people started using less misogynistic language. She had personally written back to a male player who offended her, and he apologized. However, she said that the “chivalry” men sometimes offer is not enough.
“That’s not what we’re looking for,” Whie said. “We’re looking for equality.”
Sandy Aylor asked the panelists who Clinton’s Vice President pick would be, and put forward the names of former Mass. Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Warren.
Marsh said that it would be groundbreaking to have two women on the ticket. She said that Senator Warren would come first, followed by Governor Patrick, and possibly Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.
White said that Warren would bring in a lot of votes and would be a good leader for our time. However, White isn’t sure Warren would say yes. White identified Senator Kaine as the sensible and obvious pick. She argued that Senator Warren would help by “shooting from the hip” like Senator Sanders, and that if nominated, Clinton should give her a high level of power, like former President Bill Clinton gave to former Vice President Al Gore.
Gubar asked if White is thinking of continuing The President’s Daughter series. White said she is contemplating a sequel, and that might be set late in Vaughn Powers’ second term.
White noted that Carly Fiorina is a weak candidate because she has never held office.
Marsh argued that Donald Trump, who has also never held office, will probably be the Republican presidential nominee. While she disagrees with his views, she said she understands his appeal. She said that he is savvier than people give him credit for, and that his supporters are not considering other candidates like Ben Carson.
Gubar noted that Trump gets away with sexism in his speeches and debates. She asked if Trump is counting on the same anger over income inequality that Sanders has brought to the table.
Marsh said that women are often collateral damage in campaigns and that lobs are made by both sexes. For example, the female hosts of the television show, The View, recently attacked Carly Fiorina about her appearance; however, Fiorina also made appearance attacks on Barbara Boxer when the two ran against each other in 2010. Women are women’s own worst enemies, Marsh concluded.
Gubar asked for a prediction over what might happen in a race between Clinton and Trump. Marsh predicted that Clinton would triumph, but only after a “bitter brawl.”