It was a quiet exchange with thunderous effect—and I hope I’ll never forget it.
A few years ago a letter in a magazine caught my eye because I’d read the article it referred to, on the history of women running for president in the United States.
On reading the letter, I was so unsettled that I walked into the next room and read it to my wife.
The previous article had mentioned that since 1937, Gallup’s pollsters had been asking a form of the question, “Would you vote for a woman for president?” The letter writer recalled that decades earlier, while doing research on public opinion, she discovered the first version of the question in the Gallup poll.
It read: “Would you vote for a woman for president if she were qualified in every other respect?”
Like the letter writer, I was stunned as I tried to imagine that question being asked with a straight face.
I expected my wife, Helen, to be stunned as well. Nope. She sort of verbally shrugged her shoulders. This is a version of what women hear all the time, she said.
“Why haven’t you burned us down?” I asked.
She didn’t need to think about it. “Because we have children,” she replied.
For days I couldn’t stop thinking about this, and I recall the episode often: the question itself, my wife’s reply, and mostly the distance between my surprise and Helen’s non-surprise.
But I also go for long stretches when I don’t think about it—and that scares me.
I have a 2-year-old granddaughter and two step-granddaughters, and they give me a particular lens through which I view the world as it is today and might become tomorrow. It’s a different point of view than I had before. Yet before they arrived I had a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a wife, two sisters, a mother, and many women friends and colleagues I care about.
So I wonder how I can lose touch with the 1937 Gallup question and how it made me feel, and all of that question’s successors and their indirect urging—namely, to work toward a day when there is no longer a need to ask the question at all.
Today we have the benefit of research that unequivocally tells us nobody is free of bias, none of us escapes stereotypes. Today we have the momentum of progressive movements launched from horrible experience.
Yet we know that research can go unheeded. Momentum can fade. Nothing changes without intention, pressure and time.
That’s why I began by saying I hope I’ll never forget the Gallup question and the exchange with my wife. I don’t know that I’ll always remember the feeling—that I’ll pay attention, that I’ll do the work. We humans are too flawed to guarantee it.
But I sure intend to.