This interview is an excerpt from What Will It Take to Make a Woman President: Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power by Marianne Schnall. All rights reserved.


MARIANNE SCHNALL: Why do you think we’ve not yet had a woman president?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: I think we haven’t had a woman president because we live in a country that systematically disenfranchised women for its first 100 and some years. I mean, we’ve had fewer than 100 years of women as full citizens in this country, and so I think that’s obviously part of it. You can’t expect women to be in leadership when they don’t even have an opportunity to choose who their elected leaders are.

Part of it is not only couldn’t women vote, but in many places couldn’t run for office, couldn’t hold office, couldn’t have credit in their own names—any of the things that would make having public life possible for women. I mean, I guess there were states that still had coverture laws as late as the 1950s and 1960s, right? So even if you imagine that with the end of those coverture laws, with the opening of the ballot to women and with the opportunity for women to run for office, that then you would end up with a pipeline situation. Even if at that moment all barriers dropped away, and I don’t think they did, but even if they did, then you would still have to begin the process of women entering into a field where they had previously been shut out. And then you would have to grow that pipeline until you got to the level of presidency.

I don’t think it’s a small thing that the first woman to get very near to her party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency actually came through the private sphere. She first came to the public knowledge, national public knowledge, as the wife of the president. Of course she had her own political career and ultimately became senator and all of that, but the first way that we got to know the name of Hillary Clinton was through her husband. That strikes me as kind of indicative of precisely how narrow that pathway has been—that women are still in the situation of coming to office under the terms of patriarchy and a coverture in that way.

But I do think we have to be careful: from the very beginning of the suffrage question in this country, there’s been this assumption that women will bring something specific to the public sphere, as a result of their womanhood, and I don’t think that’s quite right. I’m not sure that we can say that there is a way that women govern, and, in fact, the women who are most likely to rise to the top of governing tend to govern an awful lot like men.

“Let’s say that women don’t govern any differently than men. Even if women are no different, you still need to have 50 percent women, or upwards of it, in order to be able to say that you have a completely fair democracy.”

MS: Why is it important that we have more women’s voices—not necessarily just in the presidency, but represented more in Washington and in leadership positions generally? 

MHP: I think there are basically two categories of reasons. One is descriptive representation and the other is substantive. So let’s take the substantive off the table for a moment. Let’s say that women don’t govern any differently than men, that women will pass exactly the same kinds of laws and use the same basic procedures for governing and that really it would make no difference to elect a woman than to elect her husband or her brother—that they’re just precisely the same. Nonetheless, there would still be a descriptive representation claim for having as close to 50 percent representation of women in legislature and in the executive positions—and that’s because part of how we think about what constitutes a democracy is that all members, of all groups, or any member from a group, should have an equal opportunity for governing, based solely on merit and not on identity. So in order for democracy to be constituted as healthy and as fully democratic, it simply needs to be true that your barrier to entry is primarily about your qualification, and not about your identity. So let’s just take it as the socially and politically relevant demographic groups—by race, by ethnic identity, by gender. Even if women are no different, you still need to have 50 percent women, or upwards of it, in order to be able to say that you have a completely fair democracy.

But then I think there is reason to think that there are some substantive differences in how women govern, both stylistically and in terms of the policy output. And again, that’s just the empirical work of women in politics—scholars who show us that, in fact, when you have more women in a state legislature, for example, you’re more likely to have real bipartisan bills passed, that women tend to introduce more legislation on issues of the environment and education than their male colleagues. So there do, in fact, seem to be substantive reasons for having women, but even if there weren’t, the descriptive ones, I think, are pretty strong.

“If a woman is very talented and she shows a lot of interest in politics, we tend to say things like ‘Good job’ or ‘Here’s an A on your paper,’ but we don’t tend to say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about running for office?’”

MS: You were talking about ideally achieving 50 percent. Why we are lagging behind? There’s been a lot of discussion that some of this may be self-imposed, that women aren’t pursuing these positions, or do you think more that it’s these other structural obstacles holding women back? 

MHP: Most of these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive—both that women may be making a choice more frequently not to pursue and that that is because of the institutional barriers they face. It’s one thing to run a marathon; it’s another thing to run a marathon with one leg. There will be one-legged people who will run marathons and they’re kind of extraordinary, but when you have that barrier to overcome, too, more people are going to opt out of that.

So I suppose what I would say is that the first piece of evidence we have is simply the reality of the incumbency advantage, so because women were shut out for most of the history of the country, when women tended to run, they were running against incumbents. And incumbents tend to win. That’s just kind of a political truism. The single best advantage you can have for office is already holding that office. Women tend to do as well as their male counterparts in open-seat races. So if you hold all things constant—so you have Man A, Woman B, and they have basically the same kind of résumé—in an open-seat race, women are just as likely to win as men are. But the fact is that we mostly aren’t facing open-seat races. You mostly have to win these national races, especially in the House of Representatives, by beating somebody who’s already there. It’s really tough for challengers, and women are going to be more likely to be the challengers. So that’s part of it.

The second thing is, clearly the expense of running for office deters all kinds of newcomers and all kinds of people who have fewer institutional resources, and women continue to be poor in this country, on average and in general, more than men are. They have less access to capital, less access to the opportunities to raise the highest levels of capital, and it is almost unthinkably expensive to run. So part of it is that money tends to discourage newcomers and newcomers are, again, going to be more likely to be women.

Then, of course, we have all the institutional barriers that start from early school on. I am constantly telling the women in my classes that they should consider running for office, mostly because what we know is that when men are talented and when men are smart and when men show some leadership, it’s hard for them to even get to college without someone, at some point, asking them, “Hey, have you ever thought about running for office? Man, you would be a great president.” Even as little tiny boys, right? “Oh man, you’re good at this. I bet you’ll be president someday.” It turns out that we don’t have those same kinds of standard messages for girls. So if a woman is very talented and she shows a lot of interest in politics, we tend to say things like “Good job” or “Here’s an A on your paper,” but we don’t tend to say, “Hey, have you ever thought about running for office?” Some of it is just the very basics of being recruited.

“I’m not nervous about the fact that it takes struggle to make progress. That does, in fact, seem right, and it seems like in many ways exactly what our founders expected. Democracy is supposed to be hard.”

MS: I’m hoping that my book will convey two things: that it’s not just about women, it’s about having greater diversity in general, and also about the fact there are many ways to participate in our government, not just being president or an elected official, but also being an empowered citizen.

MHP: Yes, I appreciate your saying that, because we’ve been talking about elected office, we’ve been talking about a woman president, which requires running for office at various stages. That’s an important point: I can’t imagine what would happen for me to run for office, but I certainly see myself as engaged politically. I write to my representative, my mother is one of those retired ladies who goes up to the State House and protests. So I always have and I hope always will be engaged in the political world. It’s something that I’ve tried to pass on to my own daughter as part of what you need to know in the world—in addition to math and science and English—is to know how your government works, know who represents you, and put pressure on them toward the ends and goals that you see as important.

MS: Do you see any new paradigms emerging? Are you optimistic? 

MHP: I am, but I’m always optimistic. I was optimistic halfway through the George W. Bush presidency [laughs]. I’m just not a person who believes that we are in the worst time, that this is the decline of the American project, or that there was some better, nostalgic time in the fifties. No! Maybe for white folks there was some time that was better, but for black girls, nope, never a better time than this. However bad this is, it’s always the very best time that there has ever been. And so I guess maybe it’s not that I think that progress is inevitable or that it’s easy or that we just kind of march forward without struggle, but I’m not nervous about the fact that it takes struggle to make progress. That does, in fact, seem right, and it seems like in many ways exactly what our founders expected. Democracy is supposed to be hard. Totalitarianism is easy; you don’t have to be part of it.

MS: I have two daughters, and I see that young girls are up against so many disempowering messages these days. What words of wisdom or what message would you most want to instill in girls and young women today? 

MHP: Here’s the one thing that I worry about: I worry that girls in particular, but just in general, that we’re not willing to make mistakes. That we’re very nervous about making a wrong move and we worry that if we make the wrong move, then the consequences will mean that you kind of never recover from them. And I guess what I try to instill in [my daughter] Parker, more than any other thing, is how okay it is—in fact, it’s better than okay—to make mistakes, really big mistakes sometimes. One of our responsibilities as adults in a society is to make the world safe for young people to make mistakes, because that’s how they learn. So I would want to say to young women, “Hey, run for office, even if you think you’re going to lose. Take a hard class, even if you’re going to get a C in it. Go ahead and follow love, even if it doesn’t work out.” Just a little bit of courage to make mistakes… because that strikes me as where all the good stuff happens.


About Melissa Harris-Perry

Melissa V. Harris-Perry is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University where she directs the Anna Julia Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South and is Executive Director of the Pro Humanitate Institute. She hosted the television show “Melissa Harris-Perry” from 2012-2016 on weekend mornings on MSNBC. She co-hosts “Freedom on Tap” and is editor-at-large for Elle magazine.

Harris-Perry travels extensively speaking to colleges, organizations and businesses in the United States and abroad. In 2009 Professor Harris-Perry became the youngest scholar to deliver the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University. Also in 2009 she delivered the prestigious Ware Lecture, becoming the youngest woman to ever do so.

Harris-Perry is author of the well received book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes—invisible to many but painfully familiar to black women—profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and the 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.