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Imagining a world with more female heads of state

Women have shown they can handle the top job. Yet gender bias has persisted.

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On Sunday, millions of French men and women will determine whether a woman should become their president. Socialist Ségolène Royal is running against conservative Nicolas Sarkozy. Should she win, both France and Germany, two of the major countries in Europe, would be presided over by women. Angela Merkel is the German chancellor and currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Although the current political wisdom in France is that Mr. Sarkozy holds the lead, Ms. Royal's campaign has captured international interest and draws attention anew to the role of women in politics and government. Other women of extraordinary talent, such as Britain's Margaret Thatcher, India's Indira Gandhi, and Israel's Golda Meir have led their nations successfully, winning lasting praise in the history books. But they are in the minority.

When national leaders gather for the photographers at various international conclaves, it is still men who dominate the picture, and women seem almost a rarity.

In the United States, women can become astronauts and Supreme Court judges and cabinet ministers and governors and newspaper editors and publishers and secretaries of State, but the presidency has so far eluded them. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated in 1984 as the Democratic candidate for vice president, but the Democrats did not make it to the White House.

Now Sen. Hillary Clinton is running for the presidency, and, though a victory for her would make history, she would actually not be the first woman to be nominated. That was Victoria Claflin Woodhull, nominated by the National Woman's Suffrage Association in 1872 on a ticket of National Radical Reformers.

America has already gone through the "Can a Catholic be elected president?" and the "Can a Jew be elected president?" debate. This time around, the country is having the "Can a Mormon be elected president?" debate. But though the barriers to candidacy on grounds of religion have been crumbling, till now there has been a kind of tacit sub rosa gender bias against women.

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