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Rebecca Sive Is Pulling for a Madam President

The veteran Chicago political commentator wants to see a woman in the White House — so much so that she’s devoted a podcast and book to the cause.

Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Sive

As a co-host of the #VoteHerIn series on the Two Broads Talking Politics podcast, Chicago writer and speaker Rebecca Sive has already interviewed three of the six women seeking the Democratic nomination for president: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and self-help guru Marianne Williamson.

Sive is also the author of the book Vote Her In: Your Guide to Electing Our First Woman President, which she began writing after attending the 2017 Women’s March in Chicago. It was a way to deal with the disappointment of Hillary Clinton’s defeat by organizing women for the next election.

At a moment when two female candidates — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris — are near the top of the polls, Sive talked about the prospect of 2020 finally being the year America elects a woman president.

On election night 2016, the New York Times had a headline laid out that said “Madam President,” and of course they had to scrap it. How did you feel when Hillary Clinton lost, and how long did it take you to say, “Hey, I’m going to write a book and start working to elect a woman next time around"?

I was devastated. I grew up in a political family. My parents taught me and my brothers and sisters that public service was a high calling. My father ran for Congress when I was eight. I grew up with the idea that politics are important, public policy is important, people [should] care about the public good. Hillary Clinton, like her or not as a person, I think her policy agenda was exactly right for the times, so I was devastated, as so many were.

Then, a couple months later, I went to the Women’s March in Chicago. There were a quarter of a million people on Michigan Avenue. I just decided I would photograph it, because I wanted the memories of it. I stood outside the Art Institute for three hours with my little cellphone and took photos, and when I came home, I thought, “Is there something here I can do along the lines of a rallying cry?” Clearly, the march was the first step, but as an organizer, I’m thinking, “What’s the next step?” We have to get people engaged in the political process who haven’t been — turn these words and messages into action. 

I’ve been thinking about the issue of women’s executive political power for a long time; I actually taught a mini-course about it at the Harris School at U of C. So, I just thought, “Why not focus this call to arms around electing a woman president?” It’s clear that that’s what has mobilized men and women. So then, I just put pen to paper and started writing.

There are six women candidates running for president this year. How do you assess the chances of the women candidates in this Democratic primary?

I think it’s clear they can win. There’s a lot of support for that idea. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, so it’s clear that the American public, men and women, are prepared to vote for a woman, and the women who are running on the Democratic side right now are pretty much akin to Hillary in their policy agendas, so I think that’s point two.

The other thing is, they’re showing they can compete. They’re rebutting, they’re putting their agendas out there, they’re forceful in their messaging. I had the opportunity to go to PUSH on [June 29] and listen to Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Tulsi Gabbard, and then to listen to Warren in the following press conference. [Then], my colleague and I interviewed Amy for our podcast, #VoteHerIn. They’re all putting it out there, and the people are responding. One poll I saw put Harris in second place.

Are you personally committed to supporting a woman for president in the Democratic primary?

Absolutely, yes.

You talked in your book about how a woman would govern differently, how her priorities would be different. In your opinion, how would a woman govern differently than a man?

In the first place, there’s a lot of political science literature that shows when women enter public office, they bring in issues of primary concern relating to women and girls, like equal pay, laws relating to rape, domestic violence. That certainly was true in Illinois, as women began to enter the Illinois legislature. So the odds are that a woman president would pay a disproportionate amount of attention to issues that directly affect women and girls.

I saw an article in The New York Times saying some still think a woman can’t win the presidency. How did Hillary affect the playing field for women candidates? Did she encourage more candidates, or did the result of her campaign plant doubts about their electability?

I think she showed women can win. That’s why there are these six women out there. They all probably harbored intentions of perhaps seeking the presidency, but I think that the Clinton popular vote victory on a progressive platform made it clear that progressive women could run.

So when we do have a woman president, is Hillary Clinton going to be seen as a trailblazer?

Well, she will be trailblazer regardless of party, because a woman’s never sat behind that big desk. I quote Attorney General Lisa Madigan on this in my book: “We tell girls they can do anything and be anything, but they can’t.” So the contention is that once a woman is president, it will demonstrate for American women and girls that they really can do anything. 

I further try to make the case in the book that that will change women’s and girls’ experiences across institutional sectors, in terms of executive leadership. There may be people who doubt that women can lead, but [a female president] will show that they can.

When you wrote your book, you said that there were no women mayors in the ten largest cities. That’s different now. What was the significance to you of the fact that a woman not only won Chicago’s mayoral election, but two women made it to the runoff?

I can’t begin to describe to you how elated I was. I get chills thinking about it. Having started out in Chicago organizing on women’s issues in the mid-’70s, watching Jane Byrne be elected, then watching her compete against Harold Washington, the notion that the final two would be progressive women of color… It was wonderful that girls in Chicago could see this.

Young women graduating from college now are earning more money than young men. Down the road, as that generation matures, could that lead to more political empowerment for women?

There’s a whole group of women in that younger generation who are saying, “I’m going for it,” [as with] Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, for example.  So you’re right, some may be at it because they feel like they’ve earned enough money that they can run successfully. I think that trend has already started.

Do you think women candidates are going to benefit from people like yourself who say, “Let’s elect a woman this time"?

Well, they already have. There’s a level of people participating in various ways that they haven’t previously. An interesting data point that I just saw the other day talked about how women donors are really stepping up their level of contributions. In my own personal and professional life, I’ve had the chance to talk to lots of women from different ages. I have this young woman artist friend who’s a printmaker, but she’s doing a workshop for women who care about the issue of sexual violence.

Do you think there are a lot of women like you who are determined to support a woman this time?

I think that there are. I don’t know what those numbers look like. Certainly, I have friends from my own political work who will support any Democrat. I feel that as long as the person who’s nominated is a fully pro-choice person, I’ll work hard for them. But in the meanwhile, I’ll have a case for a woman.

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