Is the United States, an exemplar of democracy and equality, ready for a woman as president?
Incredibly, we are still asking this tired old question at the beginning of 2008, when 18 women (my best count) are heads of state among the world's 192 countries. Ironically, many of these nations are undemocratic, and some are hostile to women's rights.
In Chile, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Liberia, the Philippines and Switzerland, women serve as presidents. In Germany, Jamaica, New Zealand, Mozambique, South Korea and the Netherlands Antilles, women are prime ministers (or the equivalent title).
Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Isabel Peron, Corazon Aquino and Benazir Bhutto certainly left their indelible marks on history.
Will U.S. voters add the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton to this list? Have we reached a level of political maturity and gender enlightenment to elect a woman? Less flatteringly, do we have the collective stomach to elect a woman?
In December 2006, before Clinton publicly announced her presidential candidacy, National Public Radio's Michele Norris asked her if she thought the nation was ready to elect a woman.
"I don't know whether we're ready or not," Clinton said. "But I think at some point, we need to try. Other countries have beaten us to the punch. And I don't think there's any place in the world where it's better to be a woman, with more choices and opportunities, than in 21st century America."
Given the conduct of her campaign, Clinton is in the race to win, even if the rest of us are not ready for her.
Last October, first lady Laura Bush spoke with National Journal Group Inc. on the topic of "championing women." The interviewer asked Bush point-blank if the United States is prepared to elect a well-qualified female president.
"I do think the U.S. is certainly ready for a woman president or would elect a woman as president," Bush said, having emphasized moments earlier that she would vote only for a Republican woman. "There are so many women presidents around the world now. There are really a lot. ... And there have been previous presidents that were women around the world. So, obviously, we're not the leader in this race."
As far as I can determine, polls are unreliable because many respondents do not tell the truth on this sensitive issue, one that goes to the heart of who we are as Americans. Still, surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press show a stubborn gender gap in support for Clinton. More women than men say they would support a woman, and more Democratic women than Republican women say they would vote for a woman.
Over time, the attitudes of American men and women have changed. In 1955, a Gallup Poll indicated that 52 percent of those polled said they were ready for a well-qualified woman from their party to run the nation. In 2006, that percentage had jumped to 92 percent and remained about the same in 2007.
Surprisingly, at least to me, 61 percent of men are likely to vote for Clinton, while 51 percent of women say the same. Younger voters, according to Gallup, are also more likely to cast their ballots for a woman. Seniors are split, men at 46 percent, women 44 percent.
"When it comes to politics," according to a CBS News survey, "61 percent of Democrats think the country is ready for a woman president, compared to 48 percent of Republicans. Liberals are also more likely than conservatives to believe that America is ready for a woman to be president." No surprise there.
Although specific poll numbers may be confusing, most analysts agree on one thing: Women voters - who tend to focus on issues such as health care, the economy and job security - will determine the next president.
Stage of life, for example, is more important than age to women voters, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told NPR's Lynn Neary. The differences between women voters are based on what is happening in their lives. A 32-year-old single woman has different worries from a mother of the same age with three children or from a 32-year-old mother with kids and ailing parents.
Ethnic and class distinctions, especially among Democratic women, also figure into how women vote. College-educated women prefer Barack Obama, while women over 50, keenly aware of the glass ceiling, are more likely to back Clinton, Lake said.
The country has had a number of women who have sought the White House, but none could garner wide support. So far, Clinton has been the most viable, but she is facing the "damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't" syndrome. She cannot be too feminine for fear of appearing weak and not up to the job. She cannot be too wonky or too tough for fear being labeled a "bitch."
Obviously, men will play a big role in deciding whether we elect the first woman as president. But, as Lake said, women will make the crucial difference, which may not be good for Clinton. Remember, on a campaign stop in South Carolina, the person who asked Sen. John McCain, referring to Clinton, "How do we beat the bitch?" was a woman.
To become the nation's first female president, Hillary Rodham Clinton has the Herculean task of winning the support of other women. Are women ready to elect one of their own?