Leading Ladies: Rutger's Debbie Walsh The "Leading Ladies" series begins with a closer look at women in politics. Tony Cox talks with Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Leading Ladies: Rutger's Debbie Walsh

Leading Ladies: Rutger's Debbie Walsh

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The "Leading Ladies" series begins with a closer look at women in politics. Tony Cox talks with Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Hear an Extended Interview with Walsh.

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TONY COX, host:

For more, I spoke with Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics. Walsh agrees that women have made steady political gains in years, but they're still a long way to go.

Professor DEBBIE WALSH (Director, Center for American Women in Politics, Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics): Right now, we have a record number of women who are serving as governors. But that's only nine women governors in this country. We have a record number of women in Congress overall, House and Senate, and that's only 16.3 percent of that institution.

We still aren't at anything close to parity. But we are seeing some of these significant accomplishments when we see women as the speaker of the U.S. House, and also women who are serving as speakers of the Houses and presidents of Senates across the country in state legislatures.

So we see women making breakthroughs. We see women making a difference when they're serving in office at all of these levels of government. But we still don't have enough women there, and I think a part of that is the system in which they're operating - a party system that doesn't necessarily reach out to women, doesn't encourage and support women in the same way that it does men. And I think that that has had an impact on the paucity of women in elective office.

COX: We could not have this discussion without mentioning the name Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and let's do so now. What are some of the key obstacles - partisan issues aside, of course - facing the senator and her presidential ambition? And how do they differ, let's say, from other women who have run for president before her?

Ms. WALSH: The last two women who ran for president of the United States -Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun - both had to pull out of their races before even the first Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary. And it was because of money. Hillary Rodham Clinton won't face that challenge. She has tremendous name recognition, although I think in many ways - and she has said this herself - she is one of the best-known unknowns to the American public.

They have an image of her from her time as First Lady, but I think very few people in the American public have really focused on her as an elected woman in her own right. And now is the time that she will start to try to show the world and the voters in the United States who she is as a political person in her own right.

I think she faces some of the challenges of double standards that women face. I was noted that there have been some comments about her being ambitious, and having said that in a kind of a negative way that she's ambitious. And I stopped and wondered to think, you know, how many people could even think of running for president without being ambitious?

I'm sure every one of the men who is running for president, whether they're Democrats or Republican, are ambitious. But when it's said about a woman, somehow that has a negative connotation.

COX: Take the rest of the world as part of our conversation. There are quite a few female leaders internationally. But what has kept America back?

Ms. WALSH: I think that comes because of the number of reasons. One is, we have a different system than a lot of the countries that have elected women -parliamentary systems versus our system where the president is elected directly by the voters. And I think that makes - that changes it. And I think a lot of these other countries also have quotas when they run slates as candidates in these parliamentary systems.

There are a certain number of women that are required to be on the ballot. And as we all know in this country, if you say the Q word, people run fleeing. And so, I think that if the party has made a real commitment to electing women to office, I think we would have more women in elected office.

COX: Here's another point. We've talked about external obstacles and male dominance in the political arena. How do you address the issue of self-perception of women and those self-perceptions that you think perhaps women need to overcome for themselves to increase their visibility in the political arena?

Ms. WALSH: That's a really good question. We know that women are less likely to be what are called self-starters. You know, the people who wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, gosh, I'd be the best state senator or U.S. senator that my state has ever seen. Women are more likely to need to be asked to run, and by people who are within the political structure, sort of, telling them and encouraging them to do that.

And then we also know that if you look at the people who are in what are considered to be the potential pool of candidates - the professions like business and lawyers and teachers - when we ask people in those professions whether they have been asked to run for office, men are much more likely to be asked.

So you have a double whammy there. Women need to be asked, but they're not getting asked. So I think that's a real problem.

COX: What role does a woman's race or ethnicity play in the way that she is perceived politically?

Ms. WALSH: Yeah. I know that when Shirley Chisholm ran for president, you know, Shirley Chisholm didn't think she was going to win the presidency, but she felt a very strong obligation to show the American public that an African-American could run for the presidency of the United States and that a woman could run for president of the United States. And she wanted to be sure that there were issues raised that might not get raised, that probably certainly wouldn't get raised unless her voice was there speaking out, talking about those things. It was very important for her to be in the debates, and as many of those that she could be in.

And I think when women - when women of color - when people of color are running, I think that, you know, they have not been taken seriously. And I think that's why this year is such a breakthrough because we're seeing Barack Obama. We're seeing Governor Richardson. We're seeing Hillary Clinton. We're seeing the range of folks expanding beyond white men, and those people are being taken seriously. And I think that's really a breakthrough.

COX: Debbie Walsh, thank you very much - a very interesting conversation.

Ms. WALSH: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

COX: Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. To hear an extended version of our conversation and to keep tabs on our "Leading Ladies" series, visit the NEWS & NOTES page at npr.org.

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COX: Just ahead, U.S. intelligence says al-Qaida is on the move again. The Roundtable is coming up. Plus, how this week's volatile stock activity affects us all, even if we don't play the market. And your letters.

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