So much for an enlightened America

An extraordinary thing happened last week and we barely noticed.

Two women were installed as national leaders, one in Europe and one in Africa. The United States, still years away from this political breakpoint, continues to consider itself advanced on women’s rights.

In some ways, American women enjoy economic freedoms not enjoyed by women elsewhere. But we also use that false sense of enlightenment to delude ourselves that American women possess political parity, which in fact we do not. Not only have we never had a female chief executive, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked 181 countries by the percentage of women legislators in March 2003 — and the United States ranked 59th in the world.

On top of that, an African nation elected _ yes, elected _ its first female president. Africa. Continent of poverty, tribal wars, ancient customs and low-tech. And yet this region, which many in the United States consider less advanced than our own, passed a milestone way ahead of our educated, trend-setting, high-tech nation.

The Voice of America Web site reports that during the past half-century or so, just fewer than 50 women have served as heads of state around the world, with numbers rising most rapidly since the 1980s. With the additions of Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia, about 10 women currently serve as (non-royal) female heads of state.

Of those who have led countries, many were legacies. Indira Gandhi of India, for example, virtually inherited the prime-minister post from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan could never have gained such political power without her father, Zulfikar, who also once held that post. We Americans used to look down our noses at political legacies as something we outgrew. Then we elected one president in 2000.

The United States, meanwhile, seems decades away from its first female president. Even Mackenzie Allen, the president played by Geena Davis on ABC’s “Commander in Chief,” took over the top spot when her president died in office. Her highest elected position was vice president.

By some indicators, American women in politics are slipping further behind, as more and more women overseas go on to lead nations. Rutgers University’s Center for American Women & Politics reports that in 2004 women comprised 25.4 percent of all U.S. statewide elected executives. State office is the premier pool from which future national political leaders are promoted.

But women’s representation of 25.4 percent in 2004 was down from a high of 28.5 percent in 2000. This is a scary indication of a backward slide.

Similarly, during eight years in office, President Bill Clinton appointed women to 14 Cabinet or Cabinet-level posts. During almost five years in office, President Bush has appointed six.

Earlier this year a Siena College Research Institute poll found that more than 6 in 10 American voters believe the United States is ready for a female president.

While those results were cheered by women’s-rights advocates, they were not all good news. If only 6 in 10 Americans believe this country is ready for a female president, that means 40 percent thinks we are not. That’s a pretty sorry attitude on the part of an awful lot of Americans.

Just to ponder the question (why we haven’t yet elected a woman) draws questions along the lines of, “Why does it matter whether a woman is president or not?” True enough, politics is more important than gender (or color). And quotas are an abomination. But if we are to have truly representative government, that means different sorts of Americans should occupy the White House, bringing their particular rainbows of experience to national leadership.

Women make up more than half of the American electorate. Women pay just as much in taxes as men. Why not fair representation?

Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, told U.S. News & World Report recently that she believes a woman will have to serve as vice president before she can win the presidency. That sounds like wise counsel. Give our other 40 percent eight years to get used to the idea.

If India and Pakistan and Great Britain and France and Panama and Nicaragua and Germany and now Liberia can tolerate women as country leaders, even Americans can learn to tolerate women in the No. 2 slot.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes a column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)