by Kim Mance

When encountering people in various places like airports and conferences, they nearly all have a similar reaction upon learning that I work for the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of current and former presidents and prime ministers.

An inevitable slew of questions ensue: “Female leaders, what? There are how many?”

The conversation lends an opportunity to highlight the work of these women and widen worldviews.

While Benazir Bhutto has received a vast amount of media attention, few people are aware of just how many women have been at the helm of their country. I think this helps contribute to the sexism and scrutiny Sen. Hillary Clinton is experiencing during our own presidential election.

I’m currently writing a book, and during the course of research, I conducted an online survey with hundreds of respondents from across the United States. When asked how many women have ever been democratically elected as a president or prime minister, 66 percent believed there had been less than 10. In fact, there have been more than 50.

It’s time to get the word out that in many parts of the world the idea of a woman president isn’t an anomaly. Iceland, for example, had a woman president for 16 years. Ireland has had women presidents consecutively elected for decades. In the Netherlands Antilles, five female prime ministers have held office. Switzerland has been led by two women presidents.

So for me, it’s jarring and shocking to continually hear the question posed or implied, “Can a woman really be president?”

Recently, I witnessed the “education” of a young feminist magazine writer interviewing Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, during the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit. To kick off the interview, the enthusiastic journalist asked, “Do you think a woman can lead a nation?”

All right, just in case you missed that, let me quickly recap: The reporter asked a former female president if women can lead nations.

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. It seems as though every time I read or watch the news of the 2008 presidential campaign, this very question is flying around in some form or another.

“Well,” Robinson graciously but firmly informed her, “that question is not only an inappropriate one for me — it diminishes women.”

The reaction of Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, wasn’t much different in a later news briefing when yet another reporter asked if a woman could be president.

Standing at the front of the room with several other former female presidents and prime ministers, Campbell replied, “Just looking up here at us should answer your question.”

Then she continued with a quote from philosopher Abraham Maslow:

“‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.’ And in fact, you really might need a Phillip’s head screwdriver sometimes. Without women participating in the highest level of government, it leaves us ill-equipped to properly handle security issues, the economy, and healthcare among other things.”

Indeed she is correct. Not only can women lead, they must.

Of course these reporters were probably just looking to see who would give an endorsement of Clinton on the basis of gender. But no matter what they’re after when asking this question, they unwittingly legitimize the false assumption that men are inherently fit to lead, and women aren’t.

And that is out of the question.

Kim Mance is director of external relations for the Council of Women World Leaders.

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  • Bhupendar Sahu January 3, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Nice Article, Thank You for sharing this article. It very informative and nice

  • Jacqueline Darien January 15, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    The list of women leaders of the world was eye-opening. Gina is right about women in power being made to seem invisible. We should know how many women have been elected to lead their countries. It’s unlikely that I’m alone in my surprise. What a great service “Women’s Voices for Change” has performed.

  • Gina January 15, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    It’s amazing how even women in power are made to seem invisible. The most common way that’s done — and it’s happening with Hillary — is by portraying the female leader as “masculine” — an “automaton.” As a result, she doesn’t really register in the people’s collective consciousness as a woman.