The History of Women Presidents in Film

Why the science-fiction genre was the first to imagine a female commander-in-chief

Madame President (Screenshot from Project Moon Base)
smithsonian.com

Before Hillary Clinton makes history by becoming the Democratic nominee for president at her party’s convention this week, it’s worth reflecting on the candidates who came before her. Women like Shirley Chisholm, who in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, as the National Women’s History Museum notes, ran to show the failure of her party to “adequately represent the interests of women, African-Americans, and the working class.” Chisholm was following a 100-year-long tradition of women’s rights activists—from Victoria Woodhull to Margaret Chase Smith to Patsy Takemoto Mink—who have made the run for president.

But before Clinton, before Chisholm, a female President of the United States had already come around. Several, in fact, but all of them fictional. The first woman president to be portrayed in a talking film dates back to 1953, when actress Ernestine Barrier took to the big screen to play “Madame President” in the science fiction flick Project Moon Base, written by beloved writer Robert A. Heinlein. (He originally wrote it as a television pilot, but to his dismay, it became a treatment for a motion picture instead.)  

That the first woman president appeared in a science-fiction film makes sense, says Hugo-winning author John Scalzi, who wrote the introduction to a book of unpublished material by Heinlein that included his screenplay for Project Moon Base. “I don’t think it’s surprising at all,” he says, explaining that the purpose of science fiction is to envision models for the future, so that when history catches up to the point where these make-believe universes exist, they aren’t shocking because they’ve been seen before.

Barrier’s appearance, which comes near the end of the movie, was a confluence of multiple shifts in both Hollywood and the American sentiment. As Jeff Smith explains in The Presidents We Imagine, the movie industry reflects the public’s feelings and fears about contemporary life. World War II dramatically altered the view of traditional gender roles in the United States. The introduction of the first woman president in Project Moon Base might have come about because of the era’s changing socio-political landscape.

But Barrier’s appearance seems to be written as more of a device to shock audiences; her gender is only revealed at the very end of the movie. As Scalzi puts it, “Something along the lines of Heinlein going, ‘You want evidence that this really is the future? Forget about rockets, forget about moon landings, we have a woman president. Let me blow your mind with that.’”

Hollywood itself was embracing a golden age of science fiction; between 1948 and 1962, studios would release more than 500 genre features, Katy Waldman notes in Slate. The development of the atomic bomb and the increasingly chilly relationship with the Soviet Union that threatened nuclear apocalypse served as fodder. Often, these Cold War thrillers needed a person in charge to take control and illustrate the gravitas of the situation. Because of that, official-looking presidents began being written into the scripts.

The 1950s science-fiction films, including Project Moon Base, were broaching a new frontier. Even though one of the first full-length movies ever produced, a 1903 film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin included an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln, it wouldn’t be until the 1930s that a fictional president would appear in a Hollywood feature.

Project Moon Base has not aged well. While the film can imagine a woman as president, it cannot imagine a woman taking charge of a mission. Set in the futuristic world of 1970, the plot follows a lunar expedition sent to find an ideal location for a forthcoming moon landing.  After the mission doctor turns out to be a spy, the crew is forced to crash the ship into the Moon to stop him from sabotaging the return trip. Though a female officer is actually in charge of the mission, she repeatedly turns to her male subordinate at the first signs of trouble. In what now feels quite cringeworthy, once the pair decide to get married after landing on the Moon, the female officer requests that her husband be promoted so she won’t outrank him.

That juxtaposition of having a woman president alongside a woman who can’t imagine being in a higher position than her husband reflects the market forces of the decade. “It’s writing about the future, but it's written in the present, which means that it has to take into consideration what the audience will accept and not only what the audience will accept, but what publishers and editors and in this case movie companies will buy,” says Scalzi. “To some extent, there are some opportunities to do progressive stuff, there are some opportunities to do interesting thought experiments about social and political things, but you also have to take into consideration who's going to be watching it, and how far you can get them on the limb before the limb cracks underneath.”

Though in the film, Heinlein places the moon landing in September 1970, impressively coming within 15 months of the actual date, social aspects of the world are, of course, much harder to predict. They aren’t like physics, says Scalzi—there are no actual, provable, testable rules: “Culture changes and is highly plastic in a way that the laws of physics or the law of gravity or the law of planetary bodies aren't.”

But the use of fictional women presidents or of minority presidents, as in more recent sci-fi flicks like Deep Impact, sets the stage for society to normalize them. Today, Scalzi hypothesizes that the equivalent example in a real world where a woman president may succeed a black president might be a president whose sexuality isn’t fixed. “That would be kind of a jolt to the sensibilities in the way that a woman president would have been in 1953,” says Scalzi. “It doesn't mean that in another 50 years someone who is transgender couldn't be president and who knows, we will have to see.”

Following Project Moon Base, here are the fictionalized women presidents Smithsonian.com found through movie history:

Kisses for My President (1964)

Woe to President Leslie McCloud, played by Polly Bergen in 1964’s Kisses for My President. Leslie might be the first fictionalized female president to be given a name on screen, but the film couldn’t care less about her backstory. The running joke in the movie is that her husband, Thad NcCloud, has to take over the duties of a first lady. “Curtis Bernhardt, who directed, evidently takes a dim view of the prospect of a woman as President. It wouldn't be funny! That's what his picture says,” writes Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times.

Editor's Note, August 4, 2016: Thanks to a tip from a reader, this story has been updated to reflect that a woman president has appeared on screen at least as far back as 1924. The silent science-fiction movie The Last Man on Earth depicts a woman as president, or "presidentress" as Mordaunt Hall, the motion picture critic for The New York Times wrote at the time. In the picture, all men over the age of 14 die of a mysterious disease. "The women do not seem grief-stricken as they go about their respective duties with bright faces and weird costumes," Hall observed in his review of the film.
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