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Sheckles, T. F., Gutgold, N. D., & Carlin, D. B. (2012). Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced. Lanham: Lexington Books. ISBN: 9780739166796 (paper, 210 pp., $29.99).

This contribution to the Lexington Studies on Political Communication series examines the lives and careers of nine past and present U.S. women politicians, focusing on (but not quite answering) the central question of why hasn't there yet been a woman in the White House. The authors offer engaging biographies of successful women politicians with an emphasis on their rhetorical styles, and they ultimately present 11 hypotheses or “maxims” suggesting why none of them has even run for President, let alone been elected, despite being at least as experienced and accomplished as the current President.

The women in the book are mostly well-known Democrats or moderate Republicans of recent times, of whom much has already been written. The authors, professors of communication, include for their analysis U.S. Senators (Nancy Kassebaum, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Mikulski, and Olympia Snowe), a House Speaker (Nancy Pelosi), three Governors (Kathleen Sebelius, Christina Gregoire, and Linda Lingle) as well as a former Red Cross President (Elizabeth Dole). All have long political records and have established themselves as serious leaders with a wealth of experience and a great deal of national success. So, as the book asks, “why not Madame President?”

The authors lay out several hypotheses, relying heavily on the scholarship of Jamieson (1995) in her oft-cited Beyond the Double Bind. In her book, Jamieson articulated the common double standards long faced by powerful women, such as the “womb/brain,” “silence/shame,” “feminine/competent,” or “aging/invisible” double standards; in other words, old familiar gender stereotypes used by the political press, that leave women leaders represented as can't-win outsiders. So the authors of Gender and the American Presidency discuss, for instance, the childless, unmarried, and overweight Senator from Maryland, Barbara Mikulski, whose physical appearance and political style brought her difficulties with the “womb/brain” as well as the “feminine/competent” double bind: “Do we want a stereotypically maiden aunt in the White House? (p. 62). Nancy Pelosi, former House Speaker, on the other hand, although she successfully navigated the “womb/brain” bind by ramping up her political career after her children were older, has had to negotiate the “aging/invisible” bind and face the obstacles that older women more commonly encounter.

Applying these double standards to the women leaders under study allow the authors to raise several possibilities why none of them has made a serious run for the White House. Sheckles, Gutgold, and Carlin claim that these possibilities cannot answer the “why not Madame President” question alone; as they write, “…Generalizing from the stories of nine political women may not pass the tests of empirical research. Nonetheless, doing so can lead to several hypotheses that further investigations can indeed test” (p. 169). They hypothesize that women are held to a higher standard than men when it comes to charisma, confidence, and foreign policy credentials, and that women must carefully attend to “looking Presidential” (p. 171) while still appearing gender normative for their sex. They posit that women must protect their private lives (marriages, spouses, sexuality) more closely than men to avoid being negatively judged. And in what is perhaps the most delicate balancing act, women politicians must think carefully about the nature of the feminine: needing to balance their appeal to women with a general appeal to all voters, finding a middle way between compassion and perceived weakness, and moderating their tendency toward moderation in politics. The authors nicely mix structural factors (the gender discrimination inherent in these double binds) with problems of personal biography to address their central question.

While the book offers an enjoyable and accessible glimpse into an admittedly idiosyncratically chosen group of women political leaders, the scholarship at its heart does not strike a reader as being particularly rigorous. Perhaps this is a function of having different authors compose different segments; the chapters felt uneven in terms of writing style, content, and the depth of the rhetorical analysis. As one simple example, to provide more of a sense of comparison between the women leaders, the authors could have decided to include some uniform elements in their various biographies, such as when the women were born. The communication analyses also range widely, from reliance on secondary media sources, to content analysis of particular speeches, to simple declarations that outspokenness or folksiness or unflashiness was the hallmark of a given politician. And while some chapters emphasize the content of the subject's communications—typical themes, for instance, espoused in Olympia Snowe's speeches—others focus attention more narrowly on the actual rhetorical patterns employed by different leaders, such as Pelosi's stridency or Dole's attention-getting tactics.

Finally, what is one to make of the absence of Hillary Clinton? Although she certainly makes appearances, she is oddly not included as one of the “Nine Presidential Women” of the title. It may simply be that enough has been written (for the moment) of her biography and communication style, and that trying to explain why she is not (yet) in the White House would appear presumptuous or untimely. But perhaps a concluding section that measured Clinton's chances against those of the female politicians described in this book would have provided a compelling look toward the future. As the authors themselves muse in conclusion: “Hillary cracked it [the glass ceiling], the next woman who proves a major contender cracks it more, and the next finally breaks it” (p. 175).

Gender and the American Presidency serves as an important reminder to voters and consumers of political media that personal biography and accomplishments are not the major obstacles that have kept women thus far out of the White House. This book would be well used by students of gender politics and journalism, as well as by political reporters who need a gentle reminder, as the case studies provide strong evidence that a class of women ready for the Presidency already exist.

Reference

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  2. Reference
  3. Biography
  • Jamieson, K. H. (1995). Beyond the double bind: Women and leadership. New York: Oxford University Press.

Biography

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  2. Reference
  3. Biography
  • CATHERINE  BORSHUK (cborshuk@iusb.edu) is a social psychologist at Indiana University South Bend, and Director of the Women's & Gender Studies program there.