“Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?”
That was the question that Marianne Schnall’s 8-year-old-daughter asked her during the 2008 election that gave her pause. The writer, author and Executive Director of Feminist.com said she didn’t have an answer for her daughter. So she set out to find one.
What resulted is her new book: What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power. Marianne didn’t just ponder the question, she interviewed an impressive group of more than 45 men and women to get their insight into gender equality, the obstacles women still face and what needs to change for us to welcome a female into the Oval Office. Among those questioned were Sheryl Sandberg, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, Nicholas Kristof and Joy Behar.
We caught up with Marianne to ask about the project, memorable moments from her hours of interviews and see how she would answer her daughter’s question today.
TSR: I love the story of how this project came about: an honest, no-nonsense question from your daughter. Were you shocked at the time that you did not have an answer for her, especially considering your work with Feminist.com and writing on gender issues? And what exactly did you struggle with in answering her question: the fact that you believed there were too many factors keeping a female from the Oval Office, or that you couldn’t really pinpoint what was still holding women back after all of the recent achievements towards equality?
Schnall: When Lotus asked that question, “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” I think it wasn’t as much that I didn’t have an answer for her necessarily, but that I had so many — and it felt hard to boil it down into a short and simple statement for me to deliver to an eight-year-old girl in a way that would empower her rather than dis-empower her. It was then that I realized that her question was a lens to discuss some of the most important, timely questions of our time, and because of that, it would benefit from getting a variety of perspectives and experiences. I realized that my challenge in answering it was because there was not one answer, but rather a variety of ways of looking at that question that would hopefully help highlight the problems so we could create awareness and develop solutions.
TSR: What surprised you while working on this book? Did any of the interviewees shock you with their answers? Which ones?
Schnall: What surprised me was the passionate and helpful response from the people I approached for interviews for the book — not only in their interest and willingness to be interviewed, but in wholeheartedly supporting this project by making further suggestions of people I should talk to and often providing me with their contact information. It really felt like a collective effort and still does. I had originally planned to do only about 20 interviews for this book but I wound up doing nearly 50, so there is also an e-book version of the book with 19 additional interviews. It felt like this was a timely topic that people cared about and wanted to talk about.
As for specific interviews that surprised me or shocked me, they all had their own moments and their own special take, which is what happens when you speak to everyone from Joy Behar to Nancy Pelosi to Nicholas Kristof or Melissa Etheridge — men, women, republicans, democrats. I think what made this so interesting to me are all the various perspectives and ways of looking at it. Perhaps that is one surprise: although our country and our government feels so split on so many issues, I found so much unity around this particular issue; this is not a partisan issue and there was uniformity from both members of both political parties around the need and benefits of having more women leaders in politics and throughout all sectors of society.
“Although our country and our government feels so split on so many issues, I found so much unity around this particular issue; this is not a partisan issue and there was uniformity from both members of both political parties around the need and benefits of having more women leaders in politics and throughout all sectors of society.”
TSR: You did dozens of interviews for the book and the e-book, many of which provide insightful thoughts on equality and leadership, and even advice for women. Which one or two conversation still stick out in your mind and why?
Schnall: Honestly, all of the interviews were compelling to me so it is really hard to single out just a few. I enjoyed and learned from each one. One story that stuck out and was talked about frequently by many of the female senators was the importance of these monthly bi-partisan dinners they have been having together for many years, where they get together and, although they may talk a little bit about policy, they mostly just connect as women and talk about their lives, their children, the challenges they’re facing, just getting to know each other — and how that spills over to when they do get back to work, they see each other as human beings rather than as faceless political adversaries and can more easily work together to find compromises or solutions when there are differences.
I was also very struck with my interview with Republican Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin. She talked a lot about her own inspiring personal story, for example how she managed to juggle her career and campaigning while also being a single mother to two children and caring for her ailing mother all at the same time. I also was very affected by my interview with Maya Angelou, who looked at this from a broader cultural perspective, and her moving recollecting of her reaction to Barack Obama’s election and her optimistic sense that, as she told me, “we are growing out of our idiocies — racism and sexism and ageism and all those ignorances.”
I was also just really heartened by the allegiance of the men I spoke with, such as NFL veteran and social activist Don McPherson, who talked about not only the need for men to support women’s equality, but also his own experience and perspective on how gender roles and constrictive notions of masculinity negatively impact men and boys as much as they do women and girls. And journalist Nicholas Kristof similarly told me he was “wary” of the idea that only women should be advocating for women’s issues, pointing out if it had only been African American people writing about civil-rights issues, or gay people advocating for gay rights, those issues would never have gotten the kind of national attraction that they did. I think that point and involving men is important: this has to be reframed from being a “women’s issue” to be seen as, as Kristof put it, a “major issue of human rights and justice and of making the system work that affects all of us” — and as a matter of diversity and what is necessary to create a reflective democracy.
“…journalist Nicholas Kristof similarly told me he was “wary” of the idea that only women should be advocating for women’s issues, pointing out if it had only been African American people writing about civil-rights issues, or gay people advocating for gay rights, those issues would never have gotten the kind of national attraction that they did.”
TSR: After contemplating and gathering all of these amazing insights and ideas on this topic, what do you believe is one thing we could do as a society to help bring a strong, female leader into the White House?
I think just continuing the conversation and becoming more aware will go far toward discovering solutions and creating a world where a woman can achieve that milestone. The more we become aware, I think we will find many entry points for change available to us — whether it is through supporting the many great groups and programs working on these issues, working for policies and programs that support working mothers and families, speaking out against sexist media coverage of women or female leaders, or even just the more conscious messages we deliver to our sons and daughters, there are so many ways to be a part of this change.
And a lot of people I interviewed, from Donna Brazile to Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom, spoke about how important it is for all of us to use our own individual power as citizens — to support and campaign for the candidates we believe in, to speak out on the issues we care about impacting women and otherwise, and of course, to exercise our right to vote. And just to realize we can all be leaders in our own lives and communities. There are many ways we can use our voices and talents in the world — men and women. The more we see women leading in their own way, the more comfortable we will be as society with women leaders, which will help to dismantle harmful stereotypes and barriers. These are all ways that will help us create a world in which not only can a woman can be president, but all people can be emboldened to achieve their full human potential.
TSR: Do you feel now that you have an answer for your daughter? What would you answer to her today if she asked, Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?
I might now hand her the book! Though obviously I now have a greater understanding and much more information on this topic because of doing this book, it is still a challenge to distill it simply into a short answer. I would generally say to her that historically there have been people who have thought that women weren’t equal to men or could do the same things that men can do and though there are fewer people who still think that way, there are still some remaining beliefs and obstacles that continue to hold women back. But I would remind her that not only are women just as capable as men, but we need women in these influential roles to help shape the world, and that there has been a lot of progress and great work being done to create equality.
And I would tell her my optimistic sense that many people believe we are now ready to elect our first female president, and that I am confident she will see a woman president in her lifetime — perhaps even in this next election — and she can aspire to be president herself if that is her passion and calling. I would also tell her that I expect her daughter will not have to ask that question — hopefully by then she will have seen many female presidents!
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, TIME.com, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women’s Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women’s Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Her latest book is What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can find out more about her new book at http://www.womanpresidentbook.com.
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