When it Comes to Politics, Where Are the Women?

Washington, D.C., is buzzing about New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Some have called her the future president, others, like Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, say she is too angry to be a viable candidate for the Democrats.

Perhaps the presidential talk surrounding Clinton indicates that the United States is ready to accept a woman president and ready to catch up with the rest of the world. Women are now heads of state in Germany, Liberia and Chile. Finland's president, Tarja Halonen, was just re-elected last week. But in the United States, shifting the balance of power between men and women has been a slow, and sometimes frustrating process.

According to women on the political front lines, the difficulty of unseating incumbents, the campaign finance system and cultural attitudes all work to keep women from coming to power in the United States. Nevertheless, many say the stage is set for a female presidential candidate in 2008.

The closest a woman ever came to becoming president of the United States was when Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale in 1984.

"It wasn't close enough," Ferraro said.

President Reagan coasted to re-election, but Ferraro, 70, believes the time is right for women in America.

"I feel terrific about the progress. I want more," she said. "It will happen here."

She also said that when compared with the situation of women politicians in countries like Liberia and Chile, women politicians in the United States have had it easy -- they have not been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs.

Both Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the newly sworn-in Liberian president, and Michelle Bachelet, the recently elected Chilean president, were victims of old regimes' brutality. Until recently, warring factions plagued Liberia. In 1997, warlord Charles Taylor gained control of the government and ushered in a period of violence. In Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled the country through intimidation and torture from 1973 until 1990.

Americans are proud of their country's democratic traditions. As the saying goes, the United States is the land of opportunity. But when it comes to elected office, women are under represented.

"We are behind Rwanda and Sierra Leone and all of Latin America," said Carol Moseley Braun, 58, former Illinois senator and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate. "Most Americans presume that we are right up there ... and we're not." According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 67th in female representation in government.

Exciting, but Slow Progress

"Do you know how many women were in the Senate in 1984? One," said Ferraro. "We've multiplied that number by 14."

When Jo Ann Davidson, the co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, was elected to the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, city council in 1967, she said that people often mistook her for a secretary rather than a voting member of the committee.

"It was altogether different," said Davidson, 78. "Sometimes I get discouraged that we haven't made more progress, but when I look back then, I realize how much progress we've made."

But it is not enough for Marie Wilson, president of the nonprofit White House Project, which promotes female candidates.

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