The First Woman President

In the spring of 1992, our 2-1/2-year-old daughter Hannah attended her first presidential caucus in a backpack.

She spent several summer nights working her crayons to the nub while the Democrats droned through their debates. Although we introduced her to the cast of characters, we had assumed she wasn't listening. Then, during the last debate, she looked up from her play to ask: "What happened to Tsongas?"

This year, I wonder how I will answer the tougher question, the one we have been raising her to ask: "How come there aren't any women running for president?" I'd like to avoid any of the old boy-bashing, women are peacemaking, men are Mars-orbiting answers. Instead, I think I will take a historical, hopeful approach.

I can tell her: "For a long time, women did not have as many opportunities as men did; women have only voted for the past 76 years. But things are changing; Shirley Chisholm and Pat Schroeder have run for president, and Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president. I'm betting that you or one of your friends is the girl who will grow up to be president."

Still, as a parent I have my own question: How do we nurture our daughter's unique strengths as a leader? Consider a potential parent platform.

We can begin by daring her to tell the truth. Since our culture will encourage her to be pretty and polite, we must urge her to honor what she thinks and feels - to make her the authority about her experiences. When we encourage our daughter to speak her heart and mind, she can develop the convictions that shape her vision of herself and her sense of purpose as a leader.

We must declare her independence. Parents can counter cultural lessons of fragile females by coaching instead of rescuing a daughter. If we can stand back and let her struggle, she will learn to withstand frustration and fear, to link her own actions to the outcome, and to take credit for her accomplishments. In these ways, she will develop a true leader's self-reliance - the ability to rely on her own ability and trust her own judgment.

We can bring home heroines. We have learned that a girl's awareness of the lesser power of women is a factor in the much-documented crisis of confidence in adolescence. To light the way for our daughters to lead, parents must point to women in charge often, out loud, and on purpose. When we name the specific actions, qualities, and accomplishments of leading women, we enliven a girl's ability to picture herself in charge. And we help her imagine the special qualities that will mark her as a leader.

Finally, we must give her "gender glasses." Parents can join their daughters to see - and stand up to - stereotypes that narrow their path to leadership. We can also teach girls to be suspicious of postmodern gender-typecasting. The faddish idea that all women are kinder, gentler leaders is as wrongheaded as the idea that a man won't vote for a strong woman.

After all, the girl who will be president will not be elected because of her sex, or in spite of it. She will win our votes with her unique qualities as a leader, her fresh approaches to our problems, and her vision that unites us in a common purpose - from sea to shining sea.

*Barbara L. Mackoff is a consulting psychologist from Seattle, author of "Growing A Girl" (Dell), and co-author of the forthcoming "The Inner Work of Leaders."

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