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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Thimmesh, Catherine Madam President; illus. by Douglas B. Jones.
Houghton, 2004 80p
ISBN 0-618-39666-7 $17.00
Gr. 4-8

It’s November and it’s time to elect the president of the United States. Once again voters, regardless of party affiliation, will go to the polls and select candidates in impeccably tailored business suits and conservative, camera-friendly neckties. Again, there’s not a kick pleat, a diamond tennis bracelet, or even a pair of comfortable pumps in the running. Thimmesh challenges the seeming inevitability of all this in a sassily organized and argued rallying cry for girls-soon-to-be-women to stake a claim for the Executive Office.

In the opening sequence a pigtailed tweenager announces she intends to become president. Peers and adults suggest more easily attainable goals, citing examples of women who flexed considerable political muscle outside the Oval Office. She could, for instance, marry a president: Edith Wilson appears to have called the shots during her husband’s period of disability. Or she could vote for the president: Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked long and hard to secure that right for women, despite never enjoying it herself. She could get into Congress: Nancy Pelosi sets House Democratic party agenda. Why not land a presidential appointment? You can’t deny Madeleine Albright’s clout. How about settling for vice-president? Geraldine Ferraro almost made it. If all else fails, move to another country: an entire generation of Iceland’s children “thought the president of a country was always a woman.” Sorry, but that’s just not good enough. The Constitution stipulates two criteria for the presidency and neither one is gender, so our girl is bound for the White House with pigtails flying.

If you’re looking for an unabashed praisefest, this isn’t it. Thimmesh selects female politicos who fare no better or worse than their male counterparts—Jeannette Rankin cripples her political career with her pacifist vote against entry into World War I, and the Mondale/Ferraro ticket goes up in flames—and she blazes through the thumbnail entries with a recap of each subject’s notable “first” and a pithy quotation in blue font—so many stepping stones paving women’s path to the White House. Indeed, one occasionally wishes she would slow down long enough to nuance a broad statement (the WPA “is generally credited with the country’s economic recovery from the Great Depression”) or to substantiate an eyebrow-raising claim (Edith Wilson’s assertion that she did not make decisions for her husband has been disproved by “recent evidence” from his medical records). However, she delights in ironic tidbits and delivers them with a dash of venom. Susan B. Anthony rises in historic stature from a three-cent stamp, to a fifty-cent stamp, all the way to a silver dollar. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment turns on a letter from Mom to her Tennessee representative son. Senate chambers are notably tardy in adding “Wo-” to the Men’s Room doors.

Jones is adept at interweaving framing scenes that separate “chapters” with focus pieces that advance Thimmesh’s argument. Fictional characters, with their freckles, ruddy cheeks, and slouchy socks, could sit for Norman Rockwell, but although a palette muted in gray tones suggests historical pedigree, the crisp angularity of the figures and their startled, patronizing, or contentious expressions are grounded in the present moment. Caricatures of the featured women seize the witty metaphor: Nancy Pelosi drags her chair to the presidential table; a broom-wielding Frances Perkins makes sweeping changes in labor policy; Margaret Thatcher is clad in armor.

Thimmesh’s messages are clear: women have the political wherewithal to hold executive office, and the U.S. is looking mighty shabby in the equal opportunity department: “[W]hile the closest the United States has come to electing a woman to the highest office was to have Geraldine Ferraro a vice presidential candidate two decades ago, at least twenty-eight other nations . . . have elected female heads of state.” Come on, gals, the door’s been kicked wide open. Who wants to be first to step on through?

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

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Cover illustration by Douglas B. Jones from Madam President ©2004. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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This page was last updated on November 1, 2004.