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During the 2008 presidential election, Marianne Schnall’s then 8 year old daughter asked her, “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” Unable to provide an answer, Schnall set out on a journey to find one. A widely published writer and interviewer, and Founder of Feminist.com, Schnall interviewed influential leaders and thinkers across all sectors for her book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President: Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power (Seal Press, November 2013). These conversations explore what needs to change in order to finally elect a woman into the White House.
I interviewed Schnall to learn more about her approach to putting together the book, her thoughts on the progress women and men have made on the issue thus far, and what she’s learned from nearly 20 years working for gender equality. This is part 1 of our conversation.
What’s the power of a good question?
With this book I had such a wide range of people… politicians, artists, and activists, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, young and old. I try to word a question to illicit the wisdom and experience of each person. From the beginning it was important that this be about something bigger than “what will it take to make a woman president” or even the tagline: “conversations about women, leadership, and power.” The book title is a lens into so many different interconnected themes. I think there’s a way to ask questions that not only allow for or amplify emerging themes, but also connect them. My approach to interviewing also tends to be more conversational, which is useful. I like to share of myself, too, because these are themes I care passionately about and have been working on for many years.
In the book, you say a few times that you see new leadership paradigms emerging. What are some of these and why are they important?
It’s important to name the glaring inequities and problems that exist today, but there are a lot of hopeful new paradigms emerging, too. Some have to do with the fact that we have elected our first African American president twice. So this is about more than gender diversity, this is about diversity in general. These are hopeful times. The ignorances and intolerances that have been there in the past are eroding.
I think this idea of men being allies in the work for women’s equality is new. Another new paradigm is the realization that empowering and educating women and girls connects with so many other issues impacting all of us. Women’s leadership is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. Then there’s the new paradigm of power, shifting how we think about power, how we use it. A lot of people, including Gloria Feldt, talked about this shift from power over to power to or power with in their interviews.
Even though Occupy Wall Street has faded, that was a new paradigm, too. People were realizing they have power and responsibility. They felt they needed to become more involved. We can’t just assume our institutions are going to fix everything or take care of the causes we care about. We need to become engaged citizens, not just in politics, but in our lives and communities. When you have a new paradigm emerge, naming it and concretizing it as actually happening creates awareness and movement and action towards reinforcing it and building upon it. The book is actually turning into its own movement.
I think a woman president is a compelling symbol. A lot of people said I timed this book perfectly—since there’s a buzz about Hillary—when in reality I never gave conscious thought to timing. Whether my interviewee was Republican or Democrat, Hillary’s name kept coming up as being the woman most uniquely positioned to become the first female president, should she run. I think a woman president is a visual we haven’t had before. The way my daughter brought up the question to me (why haven’t we ever had a woman president) interested me. It’s crazy that we haven’t yet when so many other nations have elected female heads of state.
In terms of parity, people think society is much more equal than it is. When you remind people women are only 18% of Congress or of the numbers in the corporate world, you learn that we think we’re more advanced than we are. It’s hard to imagine there will be parity anytime soon because the numbers are so low. However, a lot of people in the book bring up the point that it was only relatively recently that women even got the right to vote. One of the interesting things I found in doing the book was the different reflections on where we are now. Whether people had felt we have stagnated or we are making progress. There’s not one answer. I think we still need to make a proactive push. No matter how you feel about the progress we’ve made, we need to speed things up.
In Jessica Valenti’s interview, she talks about how so many women don’t believe they are experienced enough to take the leadership position. We come across this idea a lot, that men are so quick to raise their hand or go after the job or run for office and women often deem themselves unqualified. What do you think about this issue of how women hold themselves back?
I think this is a huge issue and it starts in girlhood. A lot of the people I interviewed thought that the messages girls receive (whether it’s the media or in school) don’t bolster girls’ confidence or abilities. The pressures on girls, whether it’s about how they look or what ends up being this need to be liked or gain approval—these things can really get in the way of girls knowing who they are and taking risks and having confidence. We need to be more proactive as parents and educators in supporting girls. I’m a very thankful graduate of Women’s Media Center’s Progressive Women’s Voices training and there is a lot of talk in it about owning your expertise. More programs that focus on building women’s and girls’ confidence, will go a long way.
In her interview, Marie Wilson talks about the deep cultural shifts that need to happen around women in general as well as women and leadership. What have you learned about how deep cultural change happens in your years of activism?
We had the book launch in New York. This was a conversation with a few of the book contributors moderated by Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media. More recently, we did an event in San Francisco (in conjunction with The Representation Project) featuring Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Gavin Newsom, and Amanda de Cadenet moderated. So the role of media is really important, both in terms of the messages women and girls receive, which impact not only how they see themselves, but also how men and boys see women and girls and how female leaders are portrayed.
Change starts with becoming more awake to what’s going on and looking for opportunities for change. I’m very aware as a parent of what my daughters watch and read. You can have a lot of power as an educator or a friend. And I think there’s a massive cultural change that’s happening now anyway. At the New York event, we had Don McPherson, an NFL veteran (he’s in the book), join us and he talked about about how constricting and destructive masculinity is for men, the impact of gender stereotypes on men and boys. That’s a very important culture change we need to think about and look at: how this conversation impacts all of our abilities to achieve our full human potential. There are lot of entry points for how to bring about culture change, and I think the internet is helping in terms of exposing people to new ways of thinking.
Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.