TV & Radio
'The Time is Right'
Marie Wilson discusses America's changing attitudes toward women in politics—and the effect of shows like 'Commander in Chief'.
By Bao Ong
Updated: 6:45 p.m. ET Sept. 30, 2005
Sept. 30, 2005 - Is the United States finally ready for a woman president? ABC’s new drama, the much-hyped “Commander in Chief” has already cast Geena Davis in that role. And inside the real Beltway, Hillary Clinton undoubtedly is a leading contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008. Plus, the New York senator may find herself competing against another woman if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decides to throw her own hat into the ring.
Even if the 2008 race does not come down to a Hillary-Condi showdown, women undoubtedly have made enormous political strides since Geraldine Ferraro made it onto a White House ticket. One example: the perhaps-surprising number of female leaders—from the governor of Louisiana to the mayor of Galveston—who became familiar faces in television coverage of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf coast. That makes these gratifying times for Marie Wilson, 65. As president of The White House Project, a non-partisan organization helping advance women’s leadership, Wilson has been the inspiration for such initiatives as the “President Barbie” doll and Take Our Daughters to Work day. Now, she believes, the United States is at a tipping point—and that shows like “Commander in Chief” are reflections, not vanguards, of the current zeitgeist. She spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Bao Ong about what’s changed. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What’s keeping voters from electing more women as governors or, indeed, as president?
Pipelines. Incumbency. There are a lot of unchallenged people [running for office]. Women don’t always run unless they’re invited. We need more women coming up from the pipeline of state government into the governorships. There’s this whole issue of toughness. Women have to face toughness without losing appeal.
How can the media and voters move beyond what you call the “hair, hemlines and husband” infatuation with women leaders?
America is so individualistic. When it’s one woman, she has to be man enough for the job. When you get more women in, they have to look beyond the “hair, hemlines and husband” aspect. So we need numbers to move to the agenda instead of being stuck on their gender.
Is this what you mean when you say that you can’t be what you can’t see?
If you don’t see someone doing that job, you can’t imagine another person in that place.
What do you think of the show “Commander in Chief?”
I think it’s well written. It’s well cast. Geena [Davis] has good presence. The tone of it feels just right.
Can this show prepare voters from a woman president?
I feel like it will be a tipping point. The time is right. The country is ready, it really is. It’s also why we have this show now. It’s a measure of this country’s readiness. I cry every time I see this show and I’m not just a weeper. It’s more than about a woman; [it’s about] human rights and democracy. People are going to see a new way about the role of government. Their hearts are going to be moved. And it’s when people’s hearts are moved that we get real change. You can’t exhort people to change. You have to start where they are—and they’re in front of their televisions.
Will it be a step backwards if “Commander in Chief” doesn’t get good enough ratings to stay on the air?
This is already a big step. It will encourage other shows. It can still educate people.
Your own political views were influenced when you were a child in Atlanta forced by a bus driver to move up front when you wanted to sit in back with a black woman.
Those of us who grew up in the South, I think, grew up with a strong sense of justice and injustice. You saw the oppression so clearly. You knew this wasn’t right. You knew at a very deep level. I remember being an activist at a very early age—not because I wanted to be an activist but because I just knew it was just wrong. Children have a very keen sense of justice.
Is this what drives you to keep fighting for women’s rights?
I’ve seen women make a difference. I felt like if we didn’t get these women into the seats of power and into the government, then we couldn’t retain the changes made as women entered public policy. The best way to do is to get a richly diverse critical mass of women into leadership in America, not only in the government but every sector to lead alongside men. You get more innovation because you have more different voices at the table. Men just don’t have to deal with war and be tough enough for the job themselves.
When Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson grab headlines all the time, how can young girls get the message from shows like “Commander in Chief?”
I think what girls want to be is powerful. They see these celebrities as powerful. And if they see that if they can really be powerful, in terms of making policy, I think that will change things for little girls. Women have gained power through beauty. When women can have real power, that will no longer be an issue.
What do you think about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chances if she runs in 2008?
She’s a leader of the Democratic party. A lot depends on what’s happening in the country and world. She’s obviously certifiably credible, knowledgeable, a rock star, well-known. I think a lot depends on what’s going in the party, too. And who her opponent is if she runs.
Should a woman be nominated to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court?
It depends on the woman. We need women in leadership who support the issues. It’s only important if it’s a woman who leads. I’d have to see what she brings to the court. I don’t want a man in drag. I don’t want a person who won’t care.
What about getting other minority women into roles of leadership? Is that a different challenge?
We recently trained women in four states and roughly 40 percent of them were women of color. They understand what politics can do for them. They just need it demystified. Men see men [in politics] and they think, “I’ll learn on the job.” So the challenging part is telling [women] how you get in.
What gave you the inspiration for the President Barbie doll in 2000?
It was an accidental occasion. I was at [toy company] Mattel trying to get money but they didn’t give any. I turned around and said, ‘you should make that doll a President Barbie.’ When they said yes, nobody was more surprised than me. The only thing I couldn’t get them to do was make her feet flat. However, the second time they put her out, they said, “doll needs support,” which [sounds] more like a president [laughs.] The feminist community that I was part of didn’t speak for me several weeks. But the truth is most girls have Barbies. Why not have girls play with a Barbie that has power?
What tires you the most about critics of women’s rights?
It’s not the critics. What tires me is when I read another article on the front page of a leading New York paper that takes a narrow slice of women. Like [a New York Times report that said] women at Yale plan to drop out [of the work force when they] have children. Or, should Harvard invest in women who may not work full-time their whole life. It makes me crazy. It doesn’t look at the [other] 60 percent of women. Most women work because they have to. The social cultural ideal of women [as wife and mother] hasn’t changed in America. It feels like there’s always a push to push women back into these roles.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com