In this month’s much-talked about Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” writer Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses the age-old issue of whether women can be both mothers and top professionals. There is a paragraph that appears early on in the piece that speaks to the real heart of things. Slaughter writes:
The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.
Yet there are no major female candidates in the 2012 presidential election. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers reports that women hold only 17 percent of seats in the Senate and 16.8 percent of seats in the House. What’s a girl to do in a world where women still aren’t holding office in high numbers?
Turn on the TV.
Seriously. Women hold leadership positions on TV. A surprising number of fictional female characters have run for office or sit as elected officials. Claire Dunphy of Modern Family ran for town council in her Los Angeles neighborhood against long-standing councilman Dwayne Bailey. Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation just won a seat on the Pawnee City Council, defeating Bobby Newport. Julia Louis Dreyfus is now apparently our vice-president on the new shop Veep.
Though other shows have explored this territory in the past (a female president on the show 24; Geena Davis in Commander in Chief), there seems to currently be a simultaneous wave of women leaders on TV. It’s becoming more commonplace. When a fictional woman declares a candidacy on prime-time, it shocks fewer and fewer people each time. Are these fictional women easing us in to a world where women actually hold positions of power?
It would appear that women are on board, as evidenced by social media. Recent tweets about Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation character, perhaps one of the most inspiring women in politics today, declare:
#LeslieKnope can do it, I can do it.
I aspire to be more like Leslie Knope.
What will the legacy of these characters be? Perhaps a society bombarded with images of women in power–fictional though they may be–will better equip us to actually embrace a female president. Perhaps young girls watching these shows will run for public office one day because they grew up watching women lead on television. As Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If women and girls can’t see women holding actual positions of power, at least it’s a step in the right direction to see Amy Poehler doing it.