If Elizabeth Dole decides to run for president, as she hinted this week she might, she won't be the first woman to take that leap.
In the 1870s, there was Victoria Woodhull, candidate of the new Equal Rights Party. In 1964, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R) of Maine became the first woman to run for the nomination of a major party.
Then there was Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first black woman elected to Congress, who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
But there's a big difference between these failed candidacies and any that might be gearing up now: The public has never been more receptive to the idea of a woman president, say political observers.
Polls show a greater proportion of the public than ever is willing to vote for a qualified woman as president. In a larger sense, as politics-as-usual becomes less and less appealing, driving down turnout, voters are looking for candidates who break the mold.
Exhibit A is Minnesota's new governor, Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler turned Reform Party dynamo. Consider also Arizona, where the top five elected positions in the state are now held by women.
"Difference is now a positive," says Marie Wilson, cofounder of The White House Project, an effort to drum up support for the notion of electing a woman president by 2008.
"Brave women like Shirley Chisholm and Gerry Ferraro [Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984] ... were different when people weren't looking for different. People focused on their gender and skin color, in Shirley Chisholm's case, in a way that was often contentious."
Now, she says, the climate is very positive toward difference. Being a white male is no longer a must on the list of qualifications for election to higher office.
Female candidates, in fact, benefit from perceptions that women are more honest and sincere than men. And overall, recent history has shown that in races for state legislature and the United States Congress, when a woman runs she is just as likely to win as a man is.
It also may work to women candidates' benefit that the top issues of the day - Social Security, health care, and education - are all areas in which women are seen as having special expertise.
Not a trendsetter
Still, for a country that prides itself as being on the leading edge of global trends, the US is far behind other countries that long ago elected their first female heads of state, such as Britain, India, and Pakistan. In others, such as Ireland and Iceland, women held the top job for such long stretches that young boys wondered out loud if they would be permitted to run for president someday.
Part of the difference stems from America's winner-take-all political system, which usually thwarts third-party and unusual candidacies. In a parliamentary system, it's easier for a faction to build a coalition and win.
US politics this century has also been dominated by wars, both hot and cold, that have tended to make maleness - and military service - an essential presidential qualification. The requirement of military service began to fade with the election of President Reagan, who did not serve, and was put to rest by the first post-cold-war president, Bill Clinton, who also (famously) had no military service.
The appointments of Madeleine Albright as secretary of State, the nation's top diplomat, and Janet Reno as attorney general have also provided powerful symbols of female mastery in traditional male domains.
If Elizabeth Dole, who is resigning as head of the American Red Cross, were to make a credible run for the presidency, she would break another mold: She has never held elective office before, or even run for office.
"In this environment, that's not a problem at all, because people aren't all that impressed with traditional candidates," says Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster with no affiliation to Mrs. Dole. She adds that the Clinton sex scandal and the mess it's created in Congress have dragged down everyone involved, further whetting appetites for a new breed of candidate.
"People want someone they believe has been tested in other arenas," Ms. DiVall says.
Dole has held two Cabinet posts and run a big organization, the American Red Cross, for the past eight years. She also showed a zest for the campaign trail when she stumped for her husband, GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, in 1996.
At the Gallup organization, the public has so warmed to the idea of a woman president that the polling firm has stopped asking people whether they'd be willing to vote for a woman for president if she were qualified. In 1987, the number was 82 percent, a figure that rose steadily from the 33 percent found in 1937.
Still, even 82 percent acceptance means that not long ago, 18 percent of the public wasn't willing to vote for a woman, which points up an immense barrier that women still face - probably owing in large part to plain old sexism. That persistent reluctance will make it that much harder for most women to raise the money and gain the party backing they would need to make a credible run for the Oval Office.
One group, The White House Project, is working to fix the perception that women are less electable than men are when it comes to the presidency. Last fall, project leaders organized an initiative to allow people to vote for five women they think should run for president. Ballots were distributed in 12 states and published in major magazines.
Included on the list were women in politics, business, science, and the military. The results of the balloting will be released on Washington's Birthday, Feb. 15.