A woman at the helm

Times Staff Writer

As an intern for Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), Alejandro Rivas often gave tours of the U.S. Capitol. When he came to "The Portrait Monument," a seven-ton sculpture in the Rotunda honoring three pioneers of women's suffrage, he would tell visitors that Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were "pivotal in gaining women equal access to democracy, but their work is not complete until we have a woman president."

"And neither will this statue be complete until then," he would add.

Behind the stone figures of Mott, Stanton and Anthony, sculpted by Adelaide Johnson and unveiled in 1921, is a block of solid marble, waiting to be shaped.

For years, tour guides such as Rivas have been telling visitors that it is intended for the image of the first female president of the U.S.

Although the story is just an amusing anecdote, it doesn't seem likely that the guides will stop telling it -- given the speculation that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will run for president in 2008.

And with Tuesday's premiere of the ABC show "Commander in Chief," in which Geena Davis plays the U.S.' first female president, talk about a woman in the White House can only escalate.

"You can't be what you can't see," said Marie C. Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group whose goal is to advance women into leadership positions, up to and including the presidency. Wilson started the organization in 1998 out of frustration that women were creating important and effective social policies, but few were in positions of power to implement them.

"Why are we continuing to make these changes and not putting these women in power and making them permanent?" she asked. "We kept working toward women's rights, but didn't put women in power."

And there was a second reason: "I kept getting letters from girls that they expected to be president. I thought, 'Maybe we better do something.'

"In this country, you could never see a woman president. In this show, Geena Davis is playing a very rich role as president -- and then you start to shape public perception that she can do it."

Rod Lurie, who created the show, addressed a similar issue in "The Contender," the 2000 film in which a senator, played by Joan Allen, is nominated as vice president of the U.S. He said that his young daughter, Paige, inspired him.

"During the 2000 election, she asked me why there were no women candidates," Lurie said. "This time, I wanted a woman to become president."

The White House Project will organize parties around the country for the TV show.

Wilson, who was president of the Ms. Foundation for Women for 20 years and helped create Take Our Daughters to Work Day, said that when she founded the White House Project, she and her colleagues believed that a woman would be elected president within 10 years.

This fall, the organization is launching two initiatives to help women achieve that office -- SheSource.org and Real Security.

The perception that women are less confident discussing security issues may keep one from the job, said Chuck Todd, editor of the National Journal's Hotline, which publishes a daily online political briefing.

"It's the commander-in-chief part of the job that I think is going to be the mental hurdle that the candidate will have to jump over in the mind of some voters," he said.

To counter that, Wilson said, Real Security "will train women how to talk military language," starting with workshops, where female candidates will learn from other women who are experts in national security issues.

The perception that women are less knowledgeable on security issues also arises from the fact that few are seen discussing political issues on television -- particularly on the Sunday morning shows like "Meet the Press" or "Fox News Sunday." Men outnumber women as guests by a ratio of 9 to 1, according to a 2001 study by the White House Project, and that statistic worsened after Sept. 11.

"There is anecdotal evidence that when people think of security issues, they think of men," said Keli Goff, a spokeswoman for SheSource.org, the online resource created by the White House Project with help from the Women's Funding Network and Fenton Communications.

SheSource.org is a database of about 50 women who are experts in a variety of issues. According to Goff, television news producers said they would book more women if they knew how to find them.

Among those involved are Donna Brazile, manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; Dr. Susan Blumenthal, former U.S. assistant surgeon general and deputy assistant secretary for women's health during the Clinton administration; and Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab and a current member of the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said women have been "moving up the pipeline" over the last few decades. "You have women as governors, although not as many as years ago. You have a record number of women in the Senate and the House. These are all important factors," she said.

There are 84 women in Congress -- 14 in the Senate and 70 in the House, including the three delegates from Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia -- and eight serving as governors.

Other groups are reaching out to girls and young women too. CosmoGIRL! magazine, for example, started its "Project 2024" campaign three years ago.

"The whole idea behind Project 2024 is that we're going to put a Cosmo Girl in the White House by 2024, though that doesn't mean that a woman won't be president before then," said Susan Schulz, the magazine's editor in chief.

"Our readers have the potential to be future leaders. We call them the generation born to lead, because they don't seem to have a sense of 'I can't.' They have this 'I can do anything guys can do' attitude. It's truly in their blood," Schulz said.

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