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.
"Women's leadership was stuck at every level," said Wilson, who co-founded the project in 1998. "But the time now is right. It's kind of a tipping point if you will. We have something going very different now at the top and at the bottom."
But still, the majority of incumbents are men, and incumbents are always tough to unseat.
"There is enormous advantage to incumbency in the U.S. electoral system, and you have a system with minimal [numbers of] women participating," said former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican. "Incumbents win 90 percent of the time. Unless we come up with something dramatic, progress will continue to be slow."
That and the astronomical costs of running a campaign, said Moseley Braun, who served as ambassador to New Zealand from 1999 to 2001, stack the odds against women.
"I have $100,000 in debt from my attempt to run [for president]," said Braun, who said both parties should find a woman to run for every vacant seat. "Women don't have access to the companies, the lobby, the K Street crowd that gives fundraisers."
But experts keep calling Clinton a presidential front-runner. A Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll found that Clinton leads both Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, with 41 percent of the respondents saying they would pick her for the party's nomination. However, when pitted against Republican front-runners, such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or Sen. John McCain of Arizona, she trailed by nearly 10 points.
Work versus Family
Swift, 40, knows as well as anyone how difficult balancing politics and family can be.
She was pregnant both during her campaign for lieutenant governor and again when she was sworn in as acting governor after Gov. Paul Cellucci resigned to become ambassador to Canada. As lieutenant governor, she faced media scrutiny for using statehouse aides to pick up her children from day care.
"Most women like flexibility, and increasingly, there is a recognition that women will gear up and [gear] down their careers based on the different desires you have as a parent," she said.
Swift said motherhood can deter women from running at a younger age, which prevents them from rising in the party and gives men an advantage. The choice between politics and family can be a difficult one.
"I always tell my daughters, 'I think we opened up a lot of opportunities for you. I don't think we've made your life less complicated,'" said Davidson, who before becoming RNC co-chair was Ohio's first female speaker of the House.
Women Leaders Around the World
Across the world, women have gained political power. In Sweden women make up nearly half the parliament, and Germany just elected its first female chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In countries like Liberia and Chile, which were long dominated by violent male regimes, electing a woman is part of the backlash against the old ways, said Cornell University professor Anna Marie Smith, who specializes in government and gender.
Bachelet "represents the hopes of the people who were disempowered under Pinochet," Smith said. "I think Liberians are very tired of ... war. They are looking for a different kind of leadership."
Former Democratic congresswoman and presidential candidate Pat Schroeder of Colorado said she was often mystified by bias throughout her 24-year career on Capitol Hill. During her 1988 presidential bid, she said many people told her she didn't look "presidential."
"'Why are you running as a woman?'" she said journalists would ask her. "I would want to play with it, but you can't be too smart-alecky or you sound awful." So Schroeder answered, "What choice do I have?"
Part of the problem, she said, is how Americans envision the president. The ABC television show "Commander in Chief," starring Geena Davis, helps people develop a new way of seeing a president, she said.
"We have this huge macho cowboys thing," said Schroeder, 65, who is now president of the Association of American Publishers. Presidents are "out there playing touch football, chopping wood and riding a horse, and Americans have come to expect that kind of stuff, and it's very hard to figure out what a woman does. People couldn't get over the novelty to get to the content -- the novelty of being a girl."
And when women occupy only 15.1 percent of the 535 seats in the current Congress (there are 14 women in the Senate and 81 in the House of Representatives), a woman politician is still something of a novelty.
Wilson said she would like to see the United States develop a quota system similar to the one in South Africa, in which 30 percent of parliament seats must go to women. Even the new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan have quotas that put a higher ratio of women in government than currently serve in the United States, Wilson said.
"When you have a quota system, then you start to hold people's feet to the fire," she said. "Here all we can do is hope for political will -- to become the democracy that we are asking other countries to be."
Yet Condoleezza Rice, who first served as national security adviser and now as secretary of state, is among the world's most powerful people. She was preceded by Madeline Albright, the first female secretary of state. Until Sandra Day O'Connor's recent retirement, two women, she and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sat on the nine-member Supreme Court.
That is a far cry from what the situation was when Schroeder entered Congress in 1973. Then a woman on Capitol Hill wasn't just a novelty but an anomaly. Schroeder said she was in charge of planning the nation's bicentennial celebration and had dinner with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, to discuss the event. Some male senators were opposed to including a book called "Remember the Ladies," which was about Abigail Adams, Martha Washington and other women who helped shape America. The three of them were trying to figure out how to persuade the senators to recognize the book for the celebration.
"I remember thinking, 'The two most powerful women in America that I know cannot get these guys to change their minds,'" Schroeder said. "That was a real eye-opener."