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Marianne Schnall: On International Women's Day, and I'm still wondering when we'll have a woman in the White House

We'll need to take a proactive approach and be advocates for gender parity, she writes

Editor’s Note: Marianne Schnall is the author of “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations about Women, Leadership and Power” and the founder of the What Will It Take movement. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

For nearly a decade, I have been wrestling with the question: What will it really take to make a woman president? In America, one of the most advanced nations on Earth, why have we still not managed to reach the milestone that so many other countries around the world have achieved?

My hope and expectation was that my 2013 book, a series of conversations with leading figures from Sheryl Sandberg to Nancy Pelosi about women, leadership and power – would quickly become a relic of history, since it felt fairly inevitable that Hillary Clinton, who told us that women’s rights are human rights, would become our first female president.

Marianne Schnall
PHOTO: Franco Vogt
Marianne Schnall

The prospect seemed so close, so possible. But when Donald Trump won instead, the idea of a woman breaking that glass ceiling seemed more distant than never.

It was hard in that moment not to become discouraged and confused. But amid International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I’m still wondering when we’ll have a woman in the White House. I’ve gone back to the interviews I did for my book and come up with an agenda for what I think it will take to put a woman in the White House.

The first step is acknowledging that we have a problem to fix and then doing everything possible to get many more women in the political pipeline. This is not a “women’s issue.” It is not a partisan issue. It is a human issue. It is a matter of ensuring that we have diversity at the top of American politics and politicians that reflect the people of this country – isn’t that what democracy is all about?

Not only have we not yet had a woman president, but the numbers of women currently serving in political office are still startlingly low: less than 19.4% of Congress, 21% of the Senate, and only four women out of 50 governors.

To give these figures some international context (after all it is time to mark International Women’s Day), the United States ranks 104th in the world in terms of women in national legislatures. The US was ranked 79th when my book came out four years ago, so we are literally regressing rather than making progress.

Though women are more than 50% of the US population, we are rarely seated at the tables where important decisions are being made.

The next step is to embrace and capitalize on the irony that the level of outrage over the election of Donald Trump, his treatment of women and minorities, and many of his policies, might very well be what moves us closer to actually having a woman president.

The unprecedented surge of women who are stepping up to run for political office, more than 13,000 since election night, according to some sources, has been one positive trend we have seen in the wake of the election: Women are becoming civically engaged and rising up in all kinds of ways, as evidenced by the millions of women (and men) who participated in the historic Women’s March and continue to remain active and mobilized, most recently in a national strike.

This collective anger is the force that will generate future female presidents and women leaders of all kinds: active, engaged, empowered, courageous women who want to have their voices heard and to advocate for the causes and issues they care about without being dismissed or marginalized by those in power.

And this trend will pay dividends, since the more women leaders we have, the more it will generate. As many people mentioned in my interviews, “You can’t be what you can’t see” – women and girls need role models in order to see themselves as leaders in the first place.

This was why I was heartened when Beyoncé recommended my book in an interview in GARAGE Magazine last year, encouraging her younger fans to read the book because it “will inspire you to become a better leader.” She understood that in order to counteract the many disempowering messages girls and young women receive from society and the media today, they will need that active encouragement and examples of leaders they can believe in and relate to.

How else can we work to get a woman in the Oval Office? By monitoring and critiquing how the media represents powerful, ambitious women – especially presidential candidates.

This grueling election season highlighted the way that women leaders are often covered differently and more harshly than their male counterparts. Recall Donald Trump’s derisive comment about Carly Fiorina’s face in the primaries or all the discussion of Hillary’s hair and outfits, her voice being too loud, angry and “shrill,” and Trump’s remark that she didn’t “look like” a president.

Too many media outlets reported on these developments as if they were news, instead of calling them what they were: political opponents using sexist tactics to demean the competition.

What else can we do to encourage more women leaders? We need campaign finance reform – raising the enormous sums of money it takes to mount a political campaign is often cited as a barrier for women. We need real support for working women and families, since balancing a political career and a family is also frequently identified as a deterrent for women considering running for office (perhaps we can take some lessons from the business and tech sectors, who are also struggling to improve in these areas).

We must advocate for common-sense policies like paid family leave, equal pay and affordable child care – as well as encouraging men to share in caregiving roles and responsibilities. Enlisting men as allies and redefining constrictive gender roles that negatively impact men and boys will help society, even as it paves the way for a woman in the White House.

When Trump commented that Hillary was “playing the woman’s card,” her response was the right one: “Deal me in.” Women bring a lot to the table: different perspectives and solutions, their own personal leadership style, an inclination toward consensus building (certainly a much-needed trait in government these days), and their participation is an important component of a reflective democracy

As Nancy Pelosi told me in our interview, “It isn’t that women coming in are better than men; they’re different from men. And I always say the beauty is in the mix. To have diversity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result.”

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Some of the women of older generations whom I interviewed for my book told me that if Hillary didn’t win, they were not sure they would see a woman president in their lifetime. I certainly hope that is not the case.

But we’ll need to take a proactive approach and be advocates for gender parity: to vote, to be engaged citizens, to speak out against inequality, to run for office ourselves or encourage others to do so, to support women leaders, candidates and elected officials – we can all be a part of this change.