Is America ready for a female commander in chief?

With serious female presidential candidates like Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, women are increasingly becoming prominent leaders in American politics. This trend has been brewing for some time. But with females still vastly underrepresented in our political leadership — they make up 51 percent of the U.S. population but only 15 percent of Congress — we ought to ask: Why has it taken our nation so long to produce a legitimate female presidential candidate?

Simply put, there is a great divide in public opinion. While the politically correct response to the gender question is to call for total equality, there is no denying that men and women are different, at least biologically speaking. But the relevant question for the court of public opinion is whether or not the leadership style of a woman is fundamentally worse (or different) than that of a man.

Differences in the styles of leadership between women and men have long been observed in studies of and accounts by female leaders themselves. Members of the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL), who are all current or former female heads of state, ascribe to the view that the sexes differ significantly in their leadership style (with the important exception of Lady Margaret Thatcher, a former British prime minister.) One study of the religious leadership style of female pastors noted that women were more likely to base decisions on the aggregated advice of a group, while men tended to see themselves or their higher-ups as the authoritative voice. This data was based on a random sample of about 250 female and male pastors from a range of denominations. It is important to note that men’s and women’s varying styles can complement rather than exclude each other. As in a marriage, both can help provide balanced leadership — the best of both worlds as a working, constructive unit.

However, every person is an individual in their own right, and it is crucial to remember that no gender can completely be represented by one mode of thought. Just as not every woman is “loving, nurturing and caring” — the generalizations formed by some pastors of the study — not every man is necessarily stronger, more opinionated and decisive.

Sometimes it’s surprising to recall that women’s suffrage has only been in effect for a little over 80 years. But before women were allowed to vote, activist Victoria Woodhull stepped forward as the first woman presidential candidate in 1872 against Ulysses Grant, and though the surge of fire that prompted the women’s suffrage movement has since receded, women have surfaced for consideration within the past few decades. Hopefuls such as Elizabeth Dole, Patricia Shroeder and Geraldine Ferraro broke male-dominated barriers, committee and position-wise, appearing only within the last 20 years. Unfortunately, this is already old news for countries around the world.

Sri Lanka elected the first female prime minister in 1960, while Britain was led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1979-1990. Women are presidents, prime ministers and heads of parliament in Finland, France, Canada, India, Peru, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Ireland, New Zealand and Turkey, to name a few.

The United States had its own unofficial female president — Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson, himself a proponent of women’s suffrage, helped push the 19th Amendment to passage. Woodrow Wilson fell ill during the last two years of his presidency, leading his wife to take a more active stance in presidential affairs and earning the nickname, “the first woman president.” Though lacking an official position, Edith Wilson was able to read all documents en route to the president and become his most influential advisor. She is not the first nor the last woman to have claimed a seat of power from the shadows. Although a woman has yet to acheive the ultimate seat of power, that in no way implies that women have been completely absent from positions of leadership.

Centuries of patriarchal familial systems have led Americans to become accustomed to male breadwinners, protectors and heroes, even if such attitudes are only subconscious today. The strange duality of the matter is that women are required to care and teach for the future leaders of the world, but never to become one themselves. Aren’t the qualifications for both roles much the same? Not too long ago, in the era of physical toiling and labor, women worked beside their husbands in the fields before rushing home to cook meals without the aid of refrigeration, electricity or supermarkets. They were able and important, and respected for it. While the United States has left the agricultural society almost completely behind, women are still industrious. Their jobs simply go largely unrecognized and their backbone dismissed, even as women begin to return to the work force. Even if women are nurturers, it takes guts to cut away the gangrene.

According to a recent interview of the CWWL, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir said that when she had been president of Iceland for eight years, children of that age had assumed that only women could be presidents. Media influences, such as “Commander in Chief,” a new television drama about the first female U.S. president, and even sources like “Star Trek,” which stars women as captains and leaders, show that Americans have become accustomed to the concept of a female leader.

The polls agree. Statistics taken by Hearst Newspapers/Siena College Poll show that 62 percent of Americans believe they are ready for a female president in 2008, and 81 percent would vote for a female president. The WNBC/Marist poll suggests that the wording of a national poll and analysis of subgroups can yield more comprehensive answers. For instance, age plays a factor: People under the age of 45 tend to support the idea of a female president more than older Americans of both genders.

However, the most compelling evidence for the probability of a woman in office is a poll taken of a wide range of Democrats and Republicans, with both parties voting for prospective candidates respectively for the 2008 primary election. Interestingly, when Democrats were asked to give their preference for a president from a list of choices, Hillary Clinton led the pack with approximately 40 percent, a large lead over male peers John Kerry (18 percent), John Edwards (16 percent) and other Democratic hopefuls. A large majority of Democrats (74 percent) also supported Clinton should she enter the race. On the Republican side, a similar listing of Republican hopefuls found that Rice tied, at 21 percent, with Rudy Giuliani at the top of the poll, followed closely by John McCain, Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich and others. In both lists, women were leaders in the poll, despite the overwhelming presence of male politicians. Women, as individuals, can stand out in a crowd without assistance.

Considering the history of women’s rights in the United States and the highly varied status of women worldwide, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that women themselves may be uncomfortable with the idea of putting themselves in the spotlight. Countless female leaders have professed a desire to stay where they are as leaders, governors and senators of their own states and pass up a presidential ticket. Even abroad, female leaders express discomfort while in office due to overwhelming criticism and scrutiny, which they feel is not present for male leaders. But the United States must move ahead in time, and with female candidates currently leading the pack, the present is as good a time as any.