The articles on death of actress Polly Bergen on Saturday at age 84 brought up her groundbreaking role as the first female widely seen at President of the United States. Now, when there have been several women who served as a female president (on the screen, only!), it is hard to realize how groundbreaking – albeit corny and sexist – the movie Kisses for My President was. However, Polly Bergen paved the way for many to envision a female president. Now, it is 50 years later and still only a vision.
Kisses for My President came out in 1964. That was a time when there were no female president or leader in the world and only 14 women in the U.S. Congress (2 of which were in the Senate). For the period, it seemed to be an unrealistic premise. Remember, this was before Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and later Margaret Thatcher showed that women could lead countries through tough times.
Yes, there were strong female royals through history (Queen Elizabeth I is a prime example). However, they were not elected like Bergen’s character.
I am too young to have seen the movie in theaters. However, I remember it well. It was eye opening – and disappointing – to me as a young girl who must have seen it on television. As a girl, it was cool to see Polly Bergen as female elected as president and could have paved the way for my future interests. But, as I recall, the film expended a lot of time and attention on Fred MacMurray’s character as “first gentleman.”
The disappointing part about Kisses for My President that made the biggest impression was the ending. It shattered my childhood illusion that a woman can have it all: the president finds out she is pregnant and resigns to be a full-time mom.
This was the early 60s, before the message was still that you are either a mother or a leader, not both. (I am sure it was a coincidence that Bergen later played the female president’s mother when Geena Davis starred in Commander in Chief in 2005.)
Things have changed in the 50 years since the movie came out. Now, in California, my daughter has only been represented by female Senators (Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein) in her lifetime. The numbers of female elected officials across the U.S. is still relatively as a percentage but growing; there are currently 20 women in the Senate and more than 80 in the House. Hillary Clinton was taken seriously as a political candidate in 2012 and possibly for 2016. Sarah Palin and Geraldine Ferraro ran for Vice President in the general elections.
The U.S. is not exactly paying the way globally. Gandhi, Meir and Thatcher were perceived as anomalies back then. Yet, worldwide, women are accepted as leaders. Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Costa Rica, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are just some of the countries that have elected a woman as President or Prime Minister.
I do not know if little girls in those countries were told that getting pregnant is career ending, or that their female leaders cannot be effective as moms too. I had not thought about Kisses for My President for years. It really was not a good film. But, Polly Bergen’s death reminded me that the, while not perfectly presented in the movie, paved the way for people to at least grasp the idea that a female could be president.
By Dyanne Weiss