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20 WOMEN WHO COULD BE PRESIDENT

On the door to my office, I have a poster of a classic "Wonder Woman" comic that dates back to 1943. On it, the star-spangled gal in full regalia -- lasso, wristlets and all -- is standing in the center ring of a national political convention.

Screaming across the poster is this pronouncement: "WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT -- A Thousand Years in the Future!"

Today no one thinks we'll have to wait until 2943 to get a woman in the White House. But we still seem to think that the first female there must be a Wonder Woman. This is part of what Marie Wilson thinks of as the scarcity mentality. It's the lingering notion that we never get more than one woman candidate, and "she has to be perfect: feminine but masculine, aggressive but gentle." Etc.

Wilson, who made Take Our Daughters to Work Day a national event, is trying to set our sights on another office -- the Oval Office. She is the driving force behind the White House Project, a non-partisan group with the goal of electing a woman president in 10 years -- roughly the same amount of time it took America to get a man on the moon. Until now, the basic strategy to get a woman on the, um, presidential launching pad has been to fill the lower elective offices with so many women that one would inevitably be shot up into the national stratosphere. But they seem to go in one end of the pipeline and out the other without achieving liftoff.

Now the folks at the White House Project are trying to break through the scarcity mentality. They are joining the class known in politics as "the great mentioners." These are the mysterious forces that "mention" people, who then get talked about, considered seriously and sometimes even run.

With the aid of a brain trust and focus groups, they have compiled a list of 20 women. They are putting ballots out in magazines, and on the Internet (www.thewhitehouseproject.org). They are distributing 1 million ballots in 12 states that will let voters pick five out of the pack.

Among the women on the list are the well-known. There's one governor, Christine Whitman, and four senators, Dianne Feinstein, Olympia Snowe, Kay Hutchison and Mary Landrieu.

There are also the lesser known. A three-star Army general, Claudia Kennedy -- no more far-fetched a possibility than Colin Powell. Two Cabinet members, Carol Browner of the EPA and Donna Shalala of HHS -- no more of a stretch than Bill Bennett. And then there are the least known. A former astronaut, Mae Jemison (think John Glenn), a college president, Judith Rodin (think Woodrow Wilson), and businesswoman Ann Fudge (shall we call her Steve Forbes?).

Of course, in some ways, the timing of the Ballot Box Initiative seems a bit off. Who wants to put a woman in the White House when the one already there is having a pretty rotten time? Indeed, Hillary is on the ballot, as is Liddy Dole, though I imagine the first lady would rather get out of the East Wing than move to the West Wing.

Wilson acknowledges, "This is not exactly the climate we expected when we started this." She says, "I don't want it to be seen as a movement to get a woman in because she'll be moral." The question isn't whether she can be trusted with an intern, but with the country.

Nevertheless, when you get beyond one sex scandal, Wilson believes, "Women do bring private concerns into the public arena. How do children and the elderly get taken care of, how can work and family get dealt with, the whole business of equity? What can we bring to the table?"

These 20 names are just an opening gambit, a mind-opening gambit. No one asked these women if they would run. Nor were they quizzed on issues. Nor is this an endorsement. The Ballot Box Initiative is rather the beginning of what Wilson describes as "national conversation about what your ballot looks like."

Over the life of the country, there have been 1,843 people in the U.S. Senate. Only 23 have been women. There have been 9,643 members of the House of Representatives. Only 190 have been women. There have been 42 presidents. None has been a woman.

"The idea is to hurry history," says Wilson. This is the start of a 10-year countdown. No more waiting for Wonder Woman.

Boston Globe

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