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Panel discussed the odds of electing a female U.S. president in 2008

Lisa Boscola

Pennsylvania state senator Lisa Boscola and Lehigh political science professor Hannah Stewart-Gambino hosted a riveting panel discussion on March 23 titled “Women in Power: A look at the global female leaders and prospects for a female president.”

Held in honor of Women’s History Month, the panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Global Union and the Women’s Center.

Stewart-Gambino kicked off the event at the Global Union by examining the recent election of female presidents in other countries, citing the example of Michelle Bachelet in Chile (who was inaugurated as her country’s first president on March 11).

Bachelet, a former political prisoner during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet who later became the country’s first defense minister in 2002, received 53.5% of the vote to defeat billionaire Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile.

A moderate Socialist, she campaigned on a platform of continuing Chile’s free market policies, while increasing social benefits to help reduce the country’s gap between rich and poor, one of the largest in the world.

“One of her campaign promises was to have women make up at least half her cabinet,” said Stewart-Gambino. “Can you imagine making that kind of promise in this country?

“But in my opinion, Chile elected a female president due to the sophistication of the Chilean party system, not the sophistication of its voters.”

From there, the discussion veered to the difficulties that women face in getting elected in this country—with Boscola candidly sharing war stories from her first election and subsequent ones—before finally addressing how close the panelists believe the United States is to electing its first female president.

During her first State Senate run back in 1994, Boscola, a Democrat, didn’t receive the backing of her party in a race against a male incumbent. And she and her husband had to spend $26,000 of their own money in what turned out to be a winning effort. She’s since been re-elected, but often battles things that male candidates don’t, she says.

In her political career, Boscola has often found that female voters are toughest on her. For instance, during her first campaign back in 1994, polling numbers were conducted among six different groups—female aged 18-35, males 18-35, females 35-55, males 35-55, females 55 and over, males 55 and over—and the then-32-year-old Boscola scored worst among females in her age bracket (18-35).

“Those results surprised me as did hearing things from female voters such as I should be happy to wait my turn,” said Boscola.

As a result, Boscola has made it a point to mentor young women with an interest in politics—offering them internships as well as speaking at area colleges and high schools about the importance of considering a career in politics.

“We need to build up the farm team,” said Boscola. “It won’t be until we’ve got successful female leaders at all levels of government that we’ll have lots of viable female candidates to run for higher offices.”

Bill Hunter, director of International Students and Scholars for Lehigh, thinks Boscola may have inspired some in the audience to become that next generation of female leaders.

“Senator Boscola gave a wonderful, personal account of the hurdles she had to overcome to establish a political career. She was frank about the challenges, but sought to empower the women in the audience to also seek to break through the glass, political ceiling,” Hunter says. “Everyone who heard her speech felt the passion and dedication it takes for one to ascend to her role.”

Eight for 2008

As part of the program, a list of eight potential female U.S. presidential candidates entitled “8 for ‘08” was given to all in attendance. The eight women on the list are U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), current U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mayor Shirley Franklin (D-Atlanta), Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-Ariz.), Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, (D-Kansas), and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Off that list, both Stewart-Gambino and Boscola agreed that Clinton and Rice were the most viable candidates. Both have impressive resumes as well as the name recognition and the ability to raise the funds necessary to get elected.

Boscola admitted during the post-discussion Q&A sessions that both Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice would face uphill battles getting elected. In Clinton’s case, Boscola believes that most voters have already made up their minds about her (and her husband, former President Bill Clinton)—unlike many candidates, who usually have one-third of the voters who are strong supporters, one-third on the completely opposite side of spectrum, and one-third in the middle. Rice would have to overcome the fact that this country has never elected a woman or an African-American to its highest office.

“It’s good news that Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice are being talked about as two of the frontrunners in 2008,” said Boscola. “But, I’d be surprised if either of these women were elected president in the next election—given the current climate in this country. I feel like we made lots of progress in terms of electing women 8-10 years ago, but not as much progress since.”

Sarah Jefferson ’06, an international relations major who plans to move to Washington after graduation to pursue a career in politics, was inspired by Boscola’s speech.

“She’s had to overcome a lot of things to get where she is today,” said Jefferson, one of the two student organizers of the event, along with Elise Winderbaum ’06. “And her words made me even more certain that I want to pursue a career in politics. I’m going to go down to Washington and work really hard. I’m hoping to become one of those female leaders that Lisa Boscola talked about.”

Hunter, likewise, was impressed by the event.

“The program offered a great balance, touching both on the surge in women being elected to head of state roles internationally and the potential of a woman becoming president of the United States,” Hunter says. “The consensus is that women with political aspirations still have many challenges to overcome, but there are new opportunities ahead.”

--Bill Doherty

Posted on Monday, April 03, 2006

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