Why America Needs a Female President
GREAT FALLS, Va. — When I was in third grade, my teacher asked who among us wanted to run for class president. I raised my hand along with a few boys, and the teacher told me to come to the front of the class. He turned me around to face the class and slapped my hands with a ruler, hard, and said, “That’s for thinking that a girl can be president of anything.”
That was almost 40 years ago in Seoul, South Korea, a few years before my parents and I moved to Baltimore. I’ve told that story often, as an example of the ingrained sexism in Korean patriarchal culture that I thought I had escaped when we immigrated to America.
After I became a naturalized United States citizen in high school, I wrote college admissions essays about this experience, about how lucky I felt to have officially joined a nation that valued egalitarianism. In my 20s, when I became president of a company I co-founded, I gave speeches that began with this story, and I spoke about how grateful I was that my parents had brought me to a country where girls can dare to become president of whatever they want.
People liked this story. I liked telling it. Whenever I shared it, I could see in the listeners’ faces what I was feeling: disbelief that such a thing could happen anywhere, combined with an almost conspiratorial sense of superiority in being American, of pride in our progressive, forward-thinking society that had long ago abandoned such outdated ideas of what women could and couldn’t do.
The irony, of course, is that South Korea has a female president, Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2013, whereas America still has not had one. What’s even more disconcerting is that South Korea isn’t the only patriarchal country to have had a female leader. Just looking at Asia and the Middle East, for example, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Israel have all had female presidents or prime ministers.
The gender of a leader is not a country’s only barometer of its commitment to egalitarianism, and it goes without saying that the United States is more progressive in terms of gender equality than many countries that have had female leaders. Certainly, South Korea’s having a female president does not make me regret my family’s move to America.
Many female leaders came to power as part of a political dynasty. Ms. Park, for example, was the daughter of a powerful former leader and rose to prominence when she became acting first lady after her mother was assassinated in 1974. Many other female leaders were prime ministers who were not elected directly by their citizens, and some were interim presidents only for a short time.
Some people argue that female leaders face an inordinately high level of scrutiny and criticism compared with male leaders. Indeed, Ms. Park is embroiled in a scandal in which South Koreans are calling for her resignation. But regardless of how or why female leaders came to power or how they’re treated in office, the one advantage that these countries have over the United States is that their people have seen and experienced a woman in power, thereby normalizing the idea of women’s leading and representing both men and women. In those countries, it is now accepted that a woman can be in charge.
Back in third grade, my female classmates and I were upset over what happened but not particularly surprised. I bet that girls in classrooms across South Korean today would be shocked by a teacher punishing girls for wanting to run for president; they wouldn’t stand for it. Because once something has happened, it is no longer unthinkable.
The youngest of my children is now in third grade. For him and his classmates, the only president they have known is African-American. To them, the idea of an African-American national leader is normal, the way things have always been in their lives.
I hope for my son and his classmates, both girls and boys, that the next president they see is a woman, and that they grow up with the idea of a female president as normal.