A Woman President
If Not Now, When?
Carol Moseley Braun
February 7, 2006 – Presidential Lecture Series, Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas, Lawrence KS
Thank you so very much. I want to thank the Dole Institute for inviting me today, and thank you very much, Jonathan, for the wonderful introduction. And I want to thank all of you for taking the time to visit with me today. I’d like to thank the chancellor, Chancellor Hemingway, to Bill Lacy, thank you for your remarks, and Rep. Ballard, thank you for taking me under your wing today and of course Allison, the paparazzi, over there. Everybody’s been just wonderful today, and it’s been just a delightful time here in Lawrence.
And thanks to all of you for taking time out your schedule to come and visit with me today, and give me an opportunity to share with you. Your being here is not only a compliment to the Dole Institute, but to me, personally, and proof that I believe in spite of all the other diversions and entertainment that are available to you tonight, concern for others is not a dying art. Thank you for your presence and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you some of my own observations with you.
This is a remarkable series, and I am humbled to be among the phenomenal women who will follow. Eleanor Clift, Celinda Lake, who was my pollster by the way, Barbara Lee, who dedicated her life and her fortune to promoting women’s involvement in an executive office, particularly, to Jeanne Shaheen and Brenda Swift- all these women are pioneers in their own right, and I’m delighted to be part of a series that they will also participate in.
And I also want to thank Mark and the University of Kansas Young Democrats, with whom I had lunch today- where are they? Raise your hands high. You students were positively inspirational, and I was glad to have some quality time together.
Now before I get started and sharing my message, I hope we could just take a moment of silence. This has been an extraordinary time, and today, of course, Mrs. King was funeralized, Rosa Parks recently died and this week, also, we lost Betty Friedan. So just take a moment of silence before I get started.
My message tonight is simple: Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all living through a global change that will have profound implications for humankind. It is the revolution of the head and of the heart, and its impacts will be felt -are being felt- in every aspect of our lives. It is a revolution that will move the world toward the liberation of the human spirit. But as importantly it’s a revolution that will be directed by each and every individual who participates in the public debate about the status of women and the direction civil society takes in regards to half of the population. Of course I am speaking about the worldwide transformation of the status of women. It is nothing short of a revolution.
Now you’ve asked that I talk about politics tonight, a subject that I know a little bit about, about which I can claim some expertise, particularly at this stage in my life when I like to say to friends I have become a recovering politician. Politics is a part of and is both the cause and a result of this revolution. I hope this evening to connect the dots, and to make the case that what you do, how you respond to this revolution, matters greatly. The only question is what contribution you will choose to make and what position you will choose to take up in the battle that is raging all around us.
In 2004, I was a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States. I came away from that campaign positively inspired by what I saw of the openness and the generosity of the American people. To be honest I was frankly personally surprised by the receptivity I discovered to the idea of a woman president and delighted that I had the privilege of holding up the banner as the only female candidate in that campaign cycle. Now as can be expected, being the only woman in the field had some unexpected consequences. I became especially fond of quoting Ginger Rogers, who remarked about her famous dancing performances with Fred Astaire when she said, I did everything he did only backwards and in high heels. The guys did not have to change costumes nearly as often, they didn’t have to worry about manicures and hair, they didn’t have to concern themselves about the physical layout of the debates in the stools that showed off their legs, and they could raise their arms in a victory salute without their boobs becoming perpendicular. Well, that was one surprise.
Short of renting a bus and spending six months on the road exploring this great country, frankly, I can think of no more extensive and intensive exposure to America than a presidential campaign. This entire country, Alaska and Hawaii included, are potentially part of the landscape to be covered. A candidate has to choose and a balance between competing demands, between those invitations she gets and those she would like to have. In other words, you physically have to go both to those places where events are dictated by others, as well as to those places where your own campaign strategy and analysis suggests hold the most potential for you to personally influence and connect with voters. Thus the physical challenge of traversing the country by way of planes, helicopter, boats, trains, automobiles and even mopeds required a degree of stamina and fitness that again, for me, was unexpected. The rigors and the demands of this balance changes from campaign season to campaign season and from candidate to candidate.
There’s the campaign calendar to contend with. The states actually jockey around the timing of their respective primaries or caucuses, and woe to any state trying to get in front of Iowa or New Hampshire. Just talk to the people from Michigan. Then there’s the timing and scheduling of the state conventions, the media interviews, the public debates, and the unique rules that each state has to qualify for its ballots. I call it a campaign calculus. That calculus requires mastery of the mechanics of campaigns from technical, election law compliance, to pressing the flesh, meeting voters and maximizing the impact of candidates’ time and interactions with the voters.
Technology and communications have substantially changed the playing field, and campaigns are different now because of it. Everything from candidate blogs and meet-ups to embedded reporters and daily press, all of these impact the rhythm of modern campaigning.
And, of course, money plays a huge role. Paid advertising can create a candidacy overnight, even if it is often not enough to sustain it. I believe that the role of money in campaigns is a modern-day civil rights challenge, precisely because nontraditional candidates – that is to say women, minorities and candidates who are not in the mainstream – are at such an overwhelming financing disadvantage in the political arena – particularly for national campaigns – because so much money is spent on campaigns and the process for raising that money is itself so difficult and expensive to access. Women, as nontraditional candidates, have a harder time raising money to be considered competitive.
I discovered, in my campaign, that even before Iowa or New Hampshire, there is what is called the money primary. I don’t know how many of you have heard about the money primary, but it’s very real, and this is an almost-daily sampling by the media and your colleagues, your opposition, of how much money has been raised and from whom as a test of the viability of a candidacy or a candidate. There are even websites, and websites you can go to tonight, that base gambling odds on the amount of money a candidate raises. Elizabeth Dole was very candid that the money, or the inability to raise it, foiled her presidential aspirations.
My own shoestring effort went as far as we could afford to go, and I still believe we made a difference. We qualified for more ballots than any other women’s campaign in the history of American politics, but we couldn’t afford to stay in long enough for a vote in Iowa. Our electoral process in this country, is today conditioned on access to money in ways that are not in my opinion healthy for our democracy, but that is the reality of current campaigns.
On the issues, the good news, and in the substantive arena touching on the job that a candidate for president is applying for, after all, I was confident and even, I think, better prepared and more qualified than some of the other seven male candidates. I had served my country at a U.S. attorney, a state legislator, a local government executive, as a United States senator and an ambassador, and so I was cognizant and even experienced in just about every aspect issues of the 2004 election.
It was especially gratifying to me that people responded so well to my candor and straight talk about the questions that they asked, and I just wish I had the name of every white male middle-American who came up after a speech or debate to tell me how much he liked what I had to say. That was probably the most edifying part of the experience for me. Ordinary citizens seemed to be much more willing to give me a shot and to listen and consider me along with the men than many in the political class were prepared to concede. The voters, it seemed, were a lot less dismissive of a black woman candidate for president than the professionals and the pundits were.
Recent polls tell us that upwards of 70 percent of the American people have responded as open to the election of a candidate for president who is female. And a sampling, I believe, of the political chatter about Hillary Clinton versus Condoleezza Rice is an indication, I think, of how far we have come and how much the public’s perception and expressed attitudes have driven the political process. The “Commander in Chief’ is doing well not just because it is a well-written television program but because there is a demand in the public for visualization of a woman in the U.S. presidency, even if it is a fictional one at present.
In fact I believe and I know for a fact it was the voters, ordinary citizens, who raised the bar and insisted on fair treatment for me from the political class during my presidential campaign. In the early debates, some of you may even recall this, but in the early debates, I had a hard time getting a word in edgewise, and I’d be cut off or not called upon or given less microphone time than the men candidates. After, however, the stations began to get angry phone calls and letters from voters who complained bitterly about the unequal treatment, all that changed. By the time the network debates happened, the commentators were downright focused and even solicitous about the equality of exposure I was afforded down to the very second. At one debate, a cry from the audience, “Let her speak,” was met by the commentator turning around during the commercial break to tell how many seconds each candidate had spoken, as if to prove he had been fair.
I believe this is especially significant and provides us with a glimpse of the revolution that I believe is a worldwide phenomenon. Nothing is more important than attitude. What you perceive defines how you respond, and how you respond impacts how others react. All politics comes from a climate of public opinion about the issues. That climate of opinion is created from the attitudes and dispositions of the whole of the community, and I like to say that a climate of opinion is just like any other weather system, it depends on the hot air rising from the ground.
What my experiences make clear to me was that the American people, whether they will actually vote for a woman candidate for president or not, believe that women have a right to be treated as equals in the political arena. And that is the transformation. This expectation of equality reveals a profound shift in attitudes. It is evidence of a transformation in this country.
In the 84 years since women have enjoyed the right to vote, the walls that limited access to the public sector based on gender have begun to crumble. Those walls are not yet rubble and progress, of course, is not linear, but the change is unmistakable.
Consider for the moment, and I was glad Jonathan mentioned Victoria Woodhull. Consider the change in attitude since Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872. Her campaign amplified the conversation about the right of women to political equality, and in so doing gave impetus and inspiration to the efforts of other women who were working for women’s suffrage. By forming the Equal Rights Party, which began in 1884, fielded a candidate in Belva Lockwood, the suffragists used the platform of a presidential candidate to make the case for equality, for enfranchisement, and for a voice for women in the political arena. They were at the time, however, considered so avant garde as to engender bitter reactions even from the mainstream of American society.
With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, much of the protest impetus for women voters dissipated, and it was not until half a century later, when Sen. Margaret Chase Smith ran in 1964, that a woman would stand for a major party’s nomination for president. She championed campaign finance, but frankly, in an almost unilateral disarmament way, by refusing to take contributions while waging a serious campaign on the issues. Sen. Smith’s campaign was notable for its gender neutrality. She ran as a qualified candidate who happened to be female. In so doing, she set the tone for all of the campaigns to follow, including that of the first black woman to run for president, Shirley Chisholm.
Now I should’ve mentioned this to the students this afternoon, that I actually had the honor of meeting Congresswoman Chisholm during her campaign for president in 1972. I was a student at the time and during her swing through Illinois, we took a picture together that I’m very, very proud of today. But I was later able to better understand that her crusade—and it was more of a crusade than a campaign at the time—but her crusade laid the groundwork for an entire generation of women, myself included, and gave the American people a glimpse of the possible. By the time I ran—I reached back to her for her observations and advice, she was in retirement by then—and I took her advice to just do the best that I could do. My candidacy might have been marginalized by the pundits, but I was not in exile like Mrs. Chisholm or in outer space like Mrs. Woodhull.
And by the way, if you haven’t yet seen it, there’s a wonderful independent film made recently about her campaign called “Unbossed and Unbought.” You might want to reach out to see if you can find it.
Even though we as Americans think of ourselves as so much ahead of the rest the world in so many ways—you know, the world’s undisputed super power and wealthiest, most advanced civilization on the face of the planet— in fact we are number 58 in the world in terms of women holding political office, and after 135 years of our democratic republic, we still have not actually elected a woman president. At the rate women are currently being elected to office, and I had someone actually do the math on this, it will be the year 2080 before gender parity will be reached here at home.
In this century, other powerful nations have been led by women including Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, Poland, the Philippines, Norway, Turkey, and, most recently, Germany, Chile, and Liberia. I served as ambassador in a country that has reelected its second woman prime minister, Helen Clark of New Zealand, who followed Jenny Shipley, and of course the Council of Women World Leaders currently has 30 members.
I mention that in connection with another war story, a personal vignette, a story about my little niece, who at the time that I was getting ready to run for president was about nine years old, and she heard us in the kitchen talking about the possibility of a campaign; I hadn’t really made my mind up about it. And she called, “Auntie Carol, Auntie Carol, come quick.” So I went to her room, and she was sitting at her desk, both feet weren’t even touching the floor, and she had her Social Studies book open, and it was open to the middle page that had pictures of all the presidents, and she said, “Auntie Carol, look! All the presidents are boys!” Claire was shocked, shocked, that gender balance at not yet reached the presidency in this country, and so the question becomes what’s taking us so long?
Well, the answer I believe lies in the good news from my presidential campaign effort. Social order comes out at the expectations and the attitudes of the people.
Malcolm Gladwell recently made a fortune by describing in a book what he called the tipping point- that magic moment when a cause or an idea simply takes off, but the fact is that no one has yet quantified what goes into getting there. But my presidential experience gave me a certain knowledge that we have reached the tipping point, and that it is simply a matter of time and opportunity before a woman becomes a real commander-in-chief of this great country.
Let me give you a quick example that I think describes this social phenomenon of the tipping point and how it gets there. I’m old enough— and a few of you in the room I can tell join me with this—but I’m old enough to remember a time when gym shoes were what you wore on the tennis court or in a gymnasium. If you wore gym shoes in public, people felt sorry for you because it meant you must not have had enough money for real shoes, right? Am I right? Can I get hands here? Right. Today, of course, people wear gym shoes all the time and everywhere. To church, to work, in summer, winter, spring, or fall—gym shoes are ubiquitous and acceptable just about everywhere. Ask yourself, how did this happen? It happened because ordinary people made gym shoes fashionable, and cool, and appropriate footwear. Popular opinion about gym shoes transformed their status.
Well, I believe we have reached the tipping point in regards to the election of a woman president. Popular opinion, attitudes, even entertainment have taken the concept of a woman president from the protest of Woodhull’s candidacy to the progress represented by Chisholm’s or the potential of Elizabeth Dole’s campaign to the point that it is a near certainty that the American people will elect a president who is female in the foreseeable future. The transformation of attitudes has reached a point of inevitability.
The only issue now, I believe, is one of process – whether a woman will be able to garner the institutional support to navigate her way to the presidency remains an open question. In the case of the two leading objects speculation against Sen. Clinton and Sec. Rice, both have powerful men squarely behind them, and I might add that makes a huge difference. I would point out that in the case of women leaders, particularly, the role of men in their lives is not an insignificant aspect of their political prospects.
The second institutional barrier, actually the preeminent barrier, of course is money. As the recent Washington fundraising scandal once again illuminated, you can’t have a system as awash in money as ours is and not invite corruption. Since the Supreme Court decided the case Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s, we have created a more and more bizarre construct for political finance that regulates the fundraising process but not the fund spending process, and that creates a very un-level playing field which favors people who have access to large numbers of wealthy donors.
Even the matching funds aspect of presidential campaign finance does little to smooth out the chaos. Candidates who are themselves confident of their ability to fundraise may well forego matching funds just to avoid the limitations imposed.
Rube Goldberg, or young people recognize Wallace and Gromit, could not invent a contraption more convoluted than the way we finance campaigns, and the way we do so has, I believe, a real chilling effect on what I call nontraditional candidacies of women, minorities and independents, and that is the civil rights imperative of real campaign reform. I remember complaining about it once to a Washington-insider friend who said to me, “Oh Carol, just stop moaning about this. It’s like being in the funhouse at the circus. The floors are tilted, the mirrors are upside-down, there are trap doors and things fall out at the ceiling in front of you. The question is not whether it should be that way. The only question is, can you navigate it?”
I still disagree with that cynicism. As the candidate, having to navigate a corrupt construct may be the only question, but as Americans, I believe it is our responsibility to do what we can to make our democracy work better, and it follows that opening up and fixing this part of the political process and providing for gender equality at all levels is an important part of that duty.
Indeed it is difficult for us to separate the political equality of women here at home from our commitment to advance the cause of democracy around the world. During the presidential campaign debates when I was asked what we could do to help the women in Afghanistan, I responded elect women here in the United States. Because as women are involved in public life, in political decision-making, in policy debates and determinations, the outcomes will inevitably serve the interests of women across the world.
Now that that is not to say that all women see the world through gender lenses. We don’t. And women will be conservative or liberal in pretty much the same proportion as the men are. The difference, however, is that of whatever political stripe or party or philosophy, women bring experiences and perspectives that are gender-specific to bear on the conversation, and in so doing make the consideration of policy more comprehensive, more complete, more, dare I say it, democratic.
If any society can tap a hundred percent of the talent available, it will be a stronger society. It stands to reason that 100 percent of the talent creates a larger talent pool that does half, or less than half. In any event, a true meritocracy cannot flourish, and indeed is a mockery, in an exclusionary society. Moving the barriers that excluded some based on their physical form will help stir the competitive pot and open up civil society to the contributions of people too long marginalized by color or gender or some other aspect of their station, status, sexuality, or physicality. The last one had a little bomb in there, but we’ll talk about that later.
The full enfranchisement of women expands the prospect that any society can access all of its capacity and show that society the way to new strengths. Everybody wins when economic, political, social, legal, and human rights and opportunity are shared equally between men and women. When gender ceases to exclude half the talent that might otherwise shape the direction of policy, outcomes have a better probability of success.
In this interdependent world, we are unavoidably all connected to one another, male and female, and the self-interest of men is ultimately wrapped up in the well-being and the status of women. Power-sharing with women is not just a matter of concern for those of us who are female. It should be a concern for men who want to secure our nation’s future, as indeed it must be a matter of national concern to all countries that want to succeed in a global, international competition.
And so the struggle for gender equality is essentially a patriotic struggle, if you think about it, a fight to make the nation stronger by showing it the way to new strength. Reaching for the goal of a democratic society in which all people are created equal is an essentially patriotic mission and one that serves the interest of the whole community.
It is in this regard that the issue of women’s political equality shares such a core connection to the universal quest for human dignity. The notion that propelled the birth of our democratic republic grew out of a vision grounded in morality that sees in every person a reflection of God. It is based on the belief that every life has meaning and that every person has an equal right to the blessings of liberty and the benefits of citizenship.
We now see that our democracy is predicated on the notion that each person is entitled to participate in governance. Our American history has been defined over time by the struggle to transform the vision and noble words of what Dr. Martin Luther King once called our country’s declaration of intent, to become the reality of civil society and the hallmark of governance. This is where all of the popular movements for social justice start. These human rights are such that if we can’t do it here, we can’t export it around the world.
And so the case is being made every day, in ways that are obvious and subtle, random, personal, in general or in particular, and that is the worldwide revolution that I urge you to observe and consider. The change of attitudes that brought American women from the fight for emancipation to the forefront of electoral politics is based on so powerful an idea as to challenge every society everywhere in the world to respond and transform. We don’t know where that transformation will take us, we do know, however, that it will not leave us where we started out. The change, like charity, begins at home.
By changing the political equation that deprives every American male and female of the talent that women bring, we are forming a more perfect union, moving this country in the direction of its most noble ideals, and giving our country new capacity and new strength. But it takes each of us speaking about the issue, raising the matter at every turn, pressing and advocating for transparency and inclusion at every opportunity. It may be in a conversation in which you change somebody’s mind about the issue, or by supporting a woman candidate, or even just becoming part of the Nielsen rating for “Commander in Chief,” but just as Paul Revere’s role was different than Benjamin Franklin’s or Thomas Jefferson’s or [unintelligible], you make a difference, whatever role you choose.
I want to take questions, but I did want to share one little story with before I conclude. This is by way of example how every person’s role impacts outcomes. This is a story from the days of suffrage and you may have heard it before. It had to do with a legislator in Tennessee. Henry Burn was his name, and he had been a vote against suffrage. But the night before the crucial vote in the Tennessee legislature, he received a letter from his mother. And the letter said, and I quote, “Vote for suffrage, and don’t keep them in doubt. Don’t forget to be a good boy, and help Mrs. Catt put the rat in ratification.” The next day Burn’s vote was the decisive one that put Tennessee behind the 19th amendment, and Tennessee’s approval passed it for the entire country. When the press questioned him about the surprise switch, he responded, and I quote, “I changed my vote in favor of ratification because a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and the opportunity was mine to free millions of people from political bondage.” End quote. Well now, Burn’s name is history. We know about Burn. And we know about his vote, and we know about the impact of it, and we know about his mother and his mother’s letter, but we will probably never know who spoke to his mother. What conversations she had that gave rise to the letter, that changed his mind, that changed history.
Some anonymous person took the initiative to speak up to someone else, whose letter changed another person’s mind, and then his vote, and then history, and so my point to you is this: Creating a climate of opinion that embraces the contributions women have to make depends on each and every person, one person at a time doing what they can in a myriad of situations and circumstances. Every person, every voice, every effort, makes a difference as group responses emerge from individual actions.
We are here tonight, look at us, male and female, black and white, brown, all together. We are here tonight as testament to the successful transformation of opinion that was achieved by millions of ordinary Americans who want to see a truly democratic America, or as Barbara Jordan once said, who wanted to see an America as good as its promise.
Your being here tonight makes you a revolutionary or a patriot because it means you care enough about participating in the debate about our generation’s political legacy to engage the conversation about gender equality in presidential politics. You are helping to shape a climate of opinion that will propel the winds of change and elect the first female United States president. Your contribution may be to agitate the campaign finance reform or to insist on openness of the process or to push the political parties in the direction of gender equity, but whatever role you decide to take, it will help to shape a more perfect union and give us all an America that is as good as its promise.
After all, the future we create by our actions today will be our legacy to our daughters and our sons. By your work, it will be a legacy of equality and fairness and universal enfranchisement. It will be a legacy of the liberation of the human spirit and the emancipation of American capacity. Each of us helps to make the possible a reality, and not a moment too soon.
In closing, I’m going to share with you, I wasn’t going to do this, but I’m going to share with you this little poem, and then I’ll take your questions. I don’t have attribution for it, by the way.
The poem goes like this:
One song can spark a moment,
One flower can wake a dream.
One tree can start a forest,
One bird can herald spring.
One smile begins a friendship,
One handclasp lifts a soul.
One star can guide a ship,
One thought can frame a goal.
One vote can change a nation,
One sunbeam lights a room.
One candle lights out darkness,
One laugh will conquer gloom.
One step must start each journey,
One word must start each prayer.
One hope will raise our spirits,
One touch can show you care.
One voice can speak with wisdom,
One heart can know what’s true.
One life can make a difference,
One person just like you.
Thank you very much.