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Barbie for President: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the White House Project and the Influence of Women in Leadership

Barbie-for-President-Celebrating-the-25th-Anniversary-of-the-White-House-Project-and-the-Influence-of-Women-in-Leadership

Over the past 30 years, I have served the political arena in several roles—as an elected official, healthcare advocate, and most recently as a public affairs consultant. On panels and at events I’ve attended throughout my career, I’ve consistently heard the age-old question: “Can women have it all?” It’s a question that challenges women, who so often feel stuck when seeking a manageable balance between their personal lives and their careers.

It’s a question Marie Wilson hoped to address 25 years ago when she founded The White House Project, an initiative dedicated to increasing the number of women in leadership roles.

Among other accolades and accomplishments, Marie C. Wilson served as co-president of the Ms. Foundation. If you’ve ever heard of or participated in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” you have Wilson to thank. So, as we celebrate Ms. magazine’s 50th anniversary, it’s only fitting to spotlight Wilson’s trailblazing work. After all, she shaped a much-needed narrative that encouraged women to become leaders.

Imagine a world where every young girl believes she can be anything—even the president of the United States. It’s a message that inspires girls to believe they can grow up to be anything they want to be in a world that has been slow to accept what women have to offer. This vision, championed by Marie Wilson, has never been closer to becoming our reality.

The partnership between Wilson and Mattel in 2004 brought us the groundbreaking “Barbie for President” campaign. The campaign’s message is mirrored in the blockbuster film Barbie, which grossed over $1 billion. The movie highlights how women often feel diminished or invisible within patriarchal structures. Despite this—as reflected in the movie—Barbie has had over 200 careers. Thanks to Wilson, Barbie was even president.

2004 President Barbie. (Mattel)

The struggle for gender parity in politics is ongoing. It’s made worse by societal norms and domestic duties, both often shouldered more by women.

  • The gender gap in unpaid household and care work is similar across all demographic groups, Oxfam America and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report.
  • Women perform 37 percent more unpaid household and care work daily than men, amounting 5.7 hours per day—not accounting for the unseen mental labor involved.
  • Women are seen as primary caregivers, and female candidates are unfairly and disproportionately scrutinized—especially those with children. Our society hesitates to envision women in roles traditionally occupied by men—an “imagination barrier” I discuss in my book, Women in Politics: Breaking Down the Barriers to Achieve True Representation.
  • Forty-seven percent of women feel that a major reason women do not hold more high-ranking political offices is that female candidates are held to higher standards than male candidates, according to Pew Research Center.
  • Thirty-three percent of women reported an experience or impression that females receive less support from party leaders.

When a woman with children steps on the campaign trail, the media is quick to question who is looking after her children. There is a prevailing belief that she cannot possibly do both jobs well. It is incredibly rare to hear reporters asking men the same.

Even when a woman does not have children, she still faces a double standard: Her fitness to serve is challenged if she has children. Her fitness to serve is challenged if she does not.

The 2012 presidential Barbie doll. (Mattel)

Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This is a rallying cry for stronger representation of marginalized people in all sectors. The more we show what’s possible for women and encourage one another, the more equipped we’ll be to demolish the barriers that keep us from a fairer and more equitable world.

Thanks to publications like Ms. and the increasing involvement of women in high-ranking positions and public life, new generations of women see what’s possible for them. They see that a woman can be vice president of the United States. They see that a woman can function in a top position at a large corporation. They see that a woman can be a leader.

At the same time, each generation of girls has an even clearer view of history. That means they have a better understanding of the obstacles before them. So, while we celebrate the accomplishments of women, it’s crucial to understand that generations of barriers won’t dissolve overnight.

The glass ceiling that women in politics must break through to succeed is not singular. The barriers are multifaceted—they are financial, cultural, racial and social.

As we look toward the upcoming 2024 election, it is clear that we are in the midst of a profound yet still unfolding transition. It has been decades and even centuries in the making. In California, for example, only 192 women have served in the state’s legislature since 1911, when women were first allowed to hold office. For perspective, to date, there have been over 4,497 California state legislators.

Visionaries like Marie Wilson outlined the path for us. The cultural impact of figures like Barbie arguably shaped the shoes we use to walk down this path. Both remind us of the strides we’ve made and how much more there is to do. We must apply our creativity and grit to break through the barriers and remnants of inequality that still stand before us. To do this, it is crucial that women support each other and continue paving the way for future generations—something Ms. has done for 50 years.

The battle for equality continues. Each step forward, no matter how small, brings us closer to a more equitable world. In 2024, women’s votes, voices, experiences and perspectives are greatly needed. With so many issues still very much at stake for American women—from equal pay to reproductive rights—we can’t afford to not participate.

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