From my seat at Sunday’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” I could see an auditorium packed with people of all different races and ethnicities. The cast, as the directors and producers intended, was colorful and so was the audience. Another change I noticed from last year was an increase in the number of men in the audience.

Andrew Skidmore

This observation made me wonder if women’s rights were gaining a broader audience nationally. On Monday, Presidents Day, I thought about whether America was ready for a female president.

According to recent polls, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are both viable contenders in 2008 should they run for office. The polls varied greatly depending on the question asked, but most of them showed Clinton as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

As much as I’d like to see a female president, I don’t know if we are going to see one in 2008. The Republicans have successfully framed the presidency in terms of security – a major problem for women, who are still, unfortunately, stereotyped as weaker than men. Although analysts said that “moral values” determined the 2004 election, I think “security” probably did. In the debates between Bush and Kerry, nearly every question focused on some type of security, from homeland security to economic security to Social Security to the security of marriage and the family. The concept unified most topics of debate, implying that it is an important value to have – or at least to project – as an electable leader.

Last Monday, The Washington Post reported, “Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s likely Republican Senate race challenger charged Monday that the New York Democrat’s criticism of the Bush administration ‘aids and abets our enemies in the battle against terrorism.’ ” After accusing her husband of being soft on terrorists, the Republican challenger, John Spencer, said: “We must remove this woman.”

These attacks have been a popular refrain for Republicans, but they take on a new connotation when directed toward “this woman.”

Spencer seems to reduce the former First Lady and current Senator to her gender. Had he said the same thing about a man, the effect would have been entirely different. In the context of security – such as fighting – being “a man” carries a far more positive connotation than being “a woman.” In politics and playground rivalries alike, acting or fighting “like a girl” does not win esteem and respect from one’s peers.

The politically savvy Clinton, however, knows what she must do to secure her Senate reelection and have a chance in 2008. A few days before Spencer’s comments, Clinton said, “I take a back seat to nobody when it comes to fighting terrorism and standing up for national homeland security.”

Clinton may be able to use this line against Spencer, but in the 2008 election, she will undoubtedly take a back seat to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on issues of national security. McCain, who famously served in Vietnam, will pose a challenge for any Democrat – man or woman. Furthermore, his maverick reputation, exemplified by his opposition to President Bush over anti-torture legislation, will appeal to independents and right-leaning Democrats.

Even more dangerous, I like the guy. He’s charismatic. He’s the only Republican I’ve seen go on the Daily Show with ultra-liberal Jon Stewart and come across as personable – even laughing at some of Stewart’s jabs. I also respect that he’s a veteran and that he seems to make decisions based on character instead of partisanship. Setting aside some of his specific political views, I think he would make a great leader.

Which is my point. Excepting Washington insiders and those married to concrete moral issues, many people vote for the candidate who projects an image of leadership that has been ingrained in them, perhaps by societal and subconscious factors. Right now, this image has a lot to do with the concept of security – who is going to protect Americans – but also a notion of who voters get a good feeling about. This was a huge factor in the 2000 and 2004 elections: Voters got a good feeling about Bush; they could relate to him; they could imagine having a beer with him.

If this paradigm prevails in 2008, I don’t think a female candidate has much of a chance. Although Clinton leads the preliminary polls, I don’t think most people get a good feeling about her. They probably can’t see themselves drinking a beer with her.

But then again, maybe Americans are tired of the male-dominated view of leadership and patriarchal ideas of security. Maybe Americans are ready for a new paradigm defined by a female presidential contender. Whether or not this is true, we are going to hear more from women candidates leading up to 2008 than we ever have before.

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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