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A Woman for President? Impossible! Transferring the White House Project to Poland and France

This proposal provides a brief description of the nonprofit organization called the White House Project (WHP), and assesses the possibility of its transfer to both France and Poland.  Information was gathered in interviews with the Vice President of Development and Administration, Tiffany Dufu, and founding board member and chief donor Barbara Dobkin of the Dobkin Family Foundation. Our discussion of the organization consists of three subsections – “The Problem and Its Setting,” “Implementing a Solution,” and “Possibilities and Impossibilities” – which are first described in the American context, and later applied to the potential settings of Poland and France. We find the implementation of a similar organization in both countries to be a viable and indeed much-needed undertaking, despite being fraught with challenges unique to each European target site.

An American Social Innovation for an American Problem

The Problem and Its Setting 

Increasing women’s representation in elected bodies is a global challenge, and the political culture of the United States is no exception. Despite the U.S.’s reputation as a bastion of democracy and equal opportunity, women are underrepresented in political office. As of 2007, women accounted for an average of 17% of all legislative and parliamentary positions internationally (WHP 2009). According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the U.S. is ranked 69th worldwide, hovering near the average at 16.8% female representation in the Senate and House of Representatives combined (CAWP 2009). 

Only twelve nations worldwide, including Ireland, Finland, and Bangladesh, have female heads of state. Not only has no woman ever held this office in the U.S., but no major party has ever nominated a female candidate. Interestingly, 12 of the 19 presidents elected this past century were first elected to political office before the age of 35 (WHP 2009). The fact that virtually no women under 35 are currently found in any nationally elected office, and that only 12% of state legislators are young women, does not bode well for the prospect of a female Commander in Chief. Only 90 of the 535 members of the 111th U.S. Congress are women, and only nine of the nation’s 50 governors are women, the latter an all-time high. The problem of women’s underrepresentation in U.S. politics, then, is obvious: a subset comprising 51% of the population makes up only 17% of the Congress (WHP 2009). These disproportionate numbers characterize a democracy that is by no means truly representative, and that is but “average” on a relative international scale. As long as this significant fraction of talented citizens – women – are excluded from public life, the inequalities they face in the private sphere become only more intractable.

Implementing a Solution

The White House Project advances women’s leadership in all sectors of American society by training a diverse corps of young women aspiring to positions of power, changing the perception of women in American culture, and educating the public about women’s status in society. The organization was founded in 1998 by Marie Wilson, a notable women’s rights activist, and has published studies and hosted summits in addition to its main programs since its inception. As president, Wilson directs a staff of nine employees at the New York City headquarters, as well as six more staff at regional offices in Denver, Colorado, Atlanta, Georgia, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. A board of twenty directors oversees policy direction, strategies, and fundraising, and a corporate council of sixteen members, founded in 2006, seeks to empower women at the intersection of the private and public sectors. Funding is provided by a long list of foundations, corporations, and individuals.

The White House Project’s flagship program, Vote, Run, Lead, aims to engage women as voters, candidates, and activists, and to fill Congress with a trained “critical mass” of women legislators – 33% – by 2013. Since 2004, WHP has trained over 6,000 women in half-day, full-day, and weekend-long sessions on debate, fundraising, running for office, and political activism in five states around the country. Scholarships are provided for women with demonstrated financial need, which may cover the program tuition, transportation – especially for trainees in rural areas – and even childcare stipends. Local female leaders in business and government are invited to the roughly bimonthly sessions, all of which Marie Wilson herself attends.

Another potential vehicle for change is WHP’s mission to advance the public’s perception of women by “meeting people where they are.” The organization was instrumental in creating a President Barbie in 2000, successfully lobbying for the 2005-06 television program Commander in Chief, which featured a female president, and establishing a Ms. President Girl Scout patch in 2002, which can be earned by learning about historical female political leaders and activists. Also in 2002, WHP founded the EPIC awards to recognize men and women who have enhanced the perception of women in American culture.

Possibilities and Impossibilities 

Because WHP is devoted to progressive policies, most of its trainees tend to have progressive leanings as well. Nonetheless, the organization endorses no political party and maintains a neutral political stance.  While the founding board members of WHP never believed their mission of empowering women in politics to be impossible, there have been naysayers since its birth. Some claimed the circumstances were hopeless, some denied the importance of women in power, and others held that empowering women in other sectors should take precedence. Nonetheless, WHP has had a tangible impact on politics: in the November, 2008 elections, 110 WHP alumni ran for office, of which 54 were elected. Some also doubted WHP’s ability to train a diverse, young corps, but as of 2007, 43% of the trainees have been women of color, 46% with incomes less than $30,000, and 70% under the age of 35. By 2013, WHP plans to train 36,000 women in 15 states, and to begin new private sector initiatives under the guidance of its corporate council. One of the organization’s greatest strengths is its dedication to innovative projects: grassroots political training for a diverse base and cultural transformation through media lobbying. However, in its policy of “meeting people where they are” through Barbie or popular television, WHP has also drawn some criticism for preserving traditional gender stereotypes.

Scale and Transfer: France

Le problème et son environnement 

In France, the underrepresentation of women is manifest in several fields of society, among which the political sphere is one of the most prominent. Only 18.5% of elected members in the low chamber of Parliament (Assemblée Nationale) are women, with 21.9% in the high chamber (Sénat). Yet, parity is closer to being achieved on the regional level – 47.6% of regional councilors – and on the European level – 43.6% of French European MPs. On the local level, the circumstances are much worse: only 13.8% of mayors are women (INSEE 2008).

Until recently, the principle cause of women’s underrepresentation in political positions in France was sexist attitudes within political parties. Also to be taken into account is women’s large role in family life: in 60% of French households, men do not share housework. But if France is a latecomer to the subject of political parity compared to other Northern European countries, this is also because the feminist movement there did not tackle the issue in the 1970s, a time when it was receiving unprecedented attention elsewhere. Instead, the debate was more focused on abortion, housework, or professional equality than on political mandates. 

Times changed in the 1990s, when women’s organizations and activists demanded strict equal representation in elected chambers. The issue soon made its way into political discourse; during the 1995 presidential election campaign, candidates were summoned for the first time to take positions on the topic. Since then, several pieces of legislation have entered the political arena: in 1999, equal access by gender to elected positions was guaranteed by the Constitution, and in 2000, political lists became equally gendered for all municipal, regional, senatorial, and European elections. Financial sanctions are even set for legislative elections if parity is not observed. Yet, however strict these rules may be regarding equal gender representation, women are still not given the most powerful positions within political institutions, and some parties even choose to pay the fine instead of complying with gender parity. Hence, the political parity numbers mentioned above are compromised.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the French conception of democracy opposes political volunteerism as a force for gender equality. The notions of equality and universalism, which lie at the heart of French political history, rely on the concept of the “abstract individual” with no distinction of sex, religion, or race. Still, these theoretical objections have not wholly obstructed the possibility for positive action. 

Mettre en pratique une solution

There is no denying that the issue of gender equality is currently of interest to French public discourse, especially since a woman, Ségolène Royal, was nominated by one major political party to run for president in 2007. The composition of Sarkozy’s government also demonstrates an awareness of the underrepresentation of women, evidenced in the fact that the responsibilities for economic and financial affairs have been given to a female minister, Christine Lagarde. Nevertheless, opinion polls in 2005 did not identify political parity as a relevant problem; only 8% of women considered it the most important political issue (Ipsos 2005). Instead the spotlight has settled on economic parity, with quotas within the boards of certain private corporations suggested in July 2009. 

Few organizations that tackle the issue of female underrepresentation are visible in France. Among them, L'Assemblée des Femmes is an organization that defends women’s rights and promotes equal access to political power.. It offers training and support similar to that offered by WHP in the United States. Nevertheless, a conspicuous lack of information on the organization’s website suggests that it is far from being well-established. Le Lobby Européen des Femmes is a nonprofit aimed at advancing women’s rights and gender equality within Europe, by linking more than 40,000 organizations, acting in concert with European institutions on behalf of those organizations, and fostering dialogue between citizens and elected European politicians.

Nevertheless, no training truly equivalent to that of the White House Project’s can be found in France, since no organization approaches WHP’s level of impact. We recommend the implementation of such training to foster confidence among women entering the political sphere. Providing them with communication skills, in particular,  would be very useful, because superfluous details such as women’s presentation and appearance are often targeted by the media (e.g., Minister of Justice Rachida Dati’s pregnancy and clothing style were criticized with great zeal). If public opinion is mixed – or even worse, opposed – to the issue of women’s representation, the promotion of media coverage is a key tool. Using the media in this manner may be more effective in France than the United States, since progressive issues are not as controversial there.

French philanthropic culture lags far behind that of the U.S., and raising funds to develop and pay for the training programs may prove difficult. We would recommend seeking funds from within the luxury and beauty industries in which French corporations have developed programs to empower women, e.g. L’Oréal’s Women & Science Program. 

Possibilités et impossibilities

Except for the important consideration of  organizational capital, the establishment of an institution similar to the White House Project in France is quite possible. Like Poland, private philanthropy in France is not nearly as common as in the United States. There are few organizations in the French public sphere of comparable practical consequence to what WHP is in the U.S. It may prove difficult for a non-governmental institution to achieve or even call into focus such sweeping political change. The state would be more likely to implement such measures because of its constitutional guarantee of equal access to political mandates.

Scale and Transfer: Poland

Problem i jego uwarunkowania

Poland also suffers from a lack of female representation, especially in government. Women claim 38% of management positions in both the public and private sectors, but  hold only 18.2% of the Parliament’s seats.  Furthermore, among those in Poland who are ranked as best paid, only 2% are women. 

The nonprofit world hosts many organizations that address women’s issues. Notwithstanding, most of these are focused on aiding victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination in the workplace. Many initiatives also advocate and lobby for liberal abortion rights, which were eradicated from the Polish legal system in the 1990s. The women’s movement is sufficiently consolidated, but lacks long-term strategies concerning women's leadership and representation. Although the problem of underrepresentation is recognized, a lack of long-term funding opportunities has hindered any progress on this front; this represents a general struggle for Polish nonprofit organizations. 

The issue does exist in the public debate to a certain extent, and there is reason to think that the concept of the White House Project would not be opposed in Polish society at large. In fact, public opinion polls indicate that such initiatives would be warmly welcomed; e.g., 61% of Poles support introducing gender quotas in government (Gazeta Wyborcza 2009). This figure comes as a surprise, since Polish society is typically conservative and opposed to policy changes with social consequences. Around 90% of Poles identify themselves as members of the Roman Catholic Church, which often seeks to influence policymakers. In 1998, the Apostolic See and the government of Poland signed a concordat setting apart the Catholic Church as privileged over all other churches recognized in Polish law. The relative popularity of such an initiative despite these religious and cultural barriers speaks to the importance of this issue, and suggests that Poland is ready to address the problem of underrepresentation more directly.


The concept of training sessions run by the White House Project could be easily transferred to Poland. Moreover, recruitment and coordination would be even simpler, thanks to the country’s smaller territory and efficient transportation infrastructure. The Polish media sector is generally considered to be quite liberal, and would undoubtedly be willing to publish and broadcast content that promotes civic engagement and social change. Consequently, cooperation with popular television channels, newspapers, websites, and radio stations would be very feasible ways of pursuing the goal of advancing women's leadership.

Modern Poland has a very brief history of philanthropy, as a result of having been a dependent nation for most of the 20th century. As stated earlier, the greatest struggle for non-profit organizations is to obtain long-term funding, especially for development of their infrastructures. However, this project could be covered by European Union funds, some of which are already allocated to the promotion of gender equality.

Although the prospects for transferring the White House Project to Poland seem good, there are risks that must be taken into consideration. As mentioned above, it is difficult to secure sufficient funds for the long-term development of such an enterprise. Another possible obstacle is a lack of interest. Polish society, when compared to the U.S., is deeply apathetic in the realm of civic engagement. This trend can be observed in  the disappointing voter turnout rates, a low level of community volunteerism, and public opinion polls that reveal a general indifference to public issues. 

Możliwości i zagrożenia

This problem brings into focus the notion of “impossibility.” While resources or institutions do not themselves constitute a significant barrier to the transfer, “the impossible” carries a distinct significance in Polish culture. Having struggled for independence and autonomy since the 18th century, Poland did not manage to reach this goal until 1989.  Although democracy was warmly welcomed, its establishment has fallen victim to a lack of trust in public institutions, fostering a sense that real change cannot be achieved. The success of initiatives like the White House Project depends on the strong foundations of a mature civil society. These conditions exist in the U.S., but are still in their infancy in Poland. Nonetheless, equal representation, including gender equality, is the keystone of a sturdy democracy. Therefore, transferring the White House Project framework and strategy would be of great value to Polish society. 


Ballington, J. and A. Karam (eds.), 2005. Women in Parliament: Beyond the Numbers. A Revised Edition. Stockholm: Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), 2009. “Facts on Women in Congress 2009.” Center for American Women in Politics. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu. Accessed August 1, 2009. Gazeta Wyborcz, April 10, 2009.

National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), 2008. “Official Statistics 2008.” http://www.insee.fr. Accessed August 1, 2009.

Norris, P., 2004. Electoral Engineering: Voting Rules and Political Behaviour. London: Cambridge. Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), 2009. Fact Sheet. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

The United Nations (UN), 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The White House Project (WHP), 2009. “The Facts: Women in Elected Office 2007.”

Wilson, Marie, 2007. Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything. New York: Penguin.

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