Jeanette Rusk Sefcik: Men might vote for a woman. But will women?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives at a Women of Color roundtable discussion, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The question isn’t whether men will vote for a woman presidential candidate. Instead, I posit that it is: Will enough women make that leap of faith?

In choosing a nominee, a party’s first criterion has to be electability. You have to believe your candidate can win. So a big question being posed in all types of formats and across gender lines is: Can a woman be elected president?

In my view the standard way of looking at this question is whether men will vote for a woman. That's there, and it's important, but the critical question is whether women can surmount their feelings and attitudes to put one of their own in the toughest job in the land.

There are more female voters than male, so the fate of a female candidate literally lies in the hands of female voters.

Polls, interviews and focus groups have tried to probe the question of how comfortable people are with a female president, and large numbers say they are comfortable with the idea, but they think other people aren’t.

There’s a real question of how honest people are about their own feelings and, unfortunately, I haven’t seen breakdowns of the response by gender. But I suspect that women might be uncomfortable in large enough numbers to make the difference between, “Yes, a woman can be elected,” and, “No, a woman can’t be elected yet.”

I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I believe that many women are more skeptical than men about electing a woman president. Discounting the misogynists, in many ways men are more ready to give it a try as long as the candidate has qualities like toughness, drive and ambition that in the past have been associated with men. Women, on the other hand, tend to personalize the choice and measure the candidate against their own female standards and, yes, insecurities.

I had an experience recently that piqued my thinking on this subject of female electability. A woman friend who is an activist Democrat said she does not think a woman is electable and therefore Democrats should choose a man for the top of the ticket and a woman for vice president. I was dismayed to hear this from a close friend and confidant. But it started me thinking and researching why women might be even more reluctant than men to vote for a female presidential candidate.

I thought of my sisters discussing the topic of allowing women to have the priesthood in their religion. The essence of their reaction is “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to have that responsibility.” They were personalizing the issue and not seeing the bigger picture that other women do want it and are more than capable of handling the role. Perhaps this “role model” factor influences women more than men. Maybe men are more likely to say, “Hey, I can’t do it and don’t want to do it, but this other person is different and she can do it.” I believe female empathy with other females may contribute to their reluctance. Some women think of the demands and assaults of the job, and wonder if someone with a feminine psyche like their own could handle it.

The best antidote for this hesitancy of women to vote for a female president is to look around the world for examples of women leaders who have the qualities to handle the job. Whatever you may think of their politics or policies, some current leaders who come to mind are Angela Merkel of Germany, Teresa May of the United Kingdom, and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. Then there are former leaders like Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Indira Gandhi of India and Golda Meir of Israel.

Women who believe their gender is up to the job, as I do, need to stand up and say so and work to convince other women, and do it now before the primaries begin in earnest.

Jeanette Rusk Sefcik

Jeanette Rusk Sefcik, Glendale, is a retired newspaper reporter and editor, having worked at newspapers including the Tucson Citizen, Daily Spectrum in St. George, Southern Utah News in Kanab and Lake Powell Chronicle in Page, Ariz. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona.