Feminist Academic Leadership: Parallels to President MacKenzie Allen, in Commander in Chief

As a feminist, I found the most exciting aspect of this show was the phrase “Madame President” being broadcast into millions of American homes…

Americans recently caught a glimpse of what life might be like with a strong female leader in the White House. ABC’s Commander in Chief starred Geena Davis as the first woman President of the United States. As MacKenzie Allen, Davis was feisty and formidable. She portrayed the smart, courageous and confident leader of the free world. Commander in Chief, created by Rod Lurie, was the most watched new television show last fall and earned Davis a Golden Globe award.

As a feminist, I found the most exciting aspect of this show was the phrase “Madame President” being broadcast into millions of American homes, helping to normalize the idea of a female in the Oval Office. Television is a powerful force that can endorse women’s leadership and promote gender equity by featuring strong female role models.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, wrote, “…Television can lead and empower cultural change for the good, and ‘ Commander in Chief’ is a great beginning” (NOW Action Alert, 2006). Gandy agreed that Commander was helping to promote gender equity. Unfortunately, the series was short-lived and its last episode aired June 14, 2006.

Despite the show’s cancellation, there are a number of parallels to my recent study of feminist leadership in American higher education (Barton, 2006). Using examples from the series, I will highlight some of my findings after a brief dis-cussion of the study design.

A study of feminist academic leadership

Unsatisfactory experiences in graduate school led me to wonder why the climate of higher education is still so un-friendly toward women, and whether we need more progressive leadership to transform our schools into more respon-sive, nurturing academic communities.

To explore this question, I decided to study feminist academic leadership. There was little to go on; prior studies were based on feminist leadership in schools in Australia and New Zealand (Blackmore, 1993, 1999, 2002; Strachan, 1999, 2002). The purpose of my study was to gain an understanding of feminist leadership as constructed by feminist aca-demic administrators and to learn how feminism shapes an administrator’s leadership practices.

I employed feminist methods of inquiry and analysis. Theoretically, the study was designed around the constructivist paradigm and utilized feminist standpoint theory.

I obtained data through semi-structured interviews with seven self-identified feminists in academic administration. Interviews were conducted in the fall of 2005 and each participant was interviewed twice. Participants were African American, European American, and International women who held various academic positions and represented a variety of schools in the Midwest. They are identified here by pseudonyms. Content analysis was used in conjunction with the constant comparative method for analysis.

The study revealed many interesting themes. This article discusses the three strongest and most obvious parallels between my research and the leadership of President MacKenzie Allen: marginalization, power and a social justice agenda.

Marginalized for being ‘different’

Since she is a fictitious character, I can’t speak to whether MacKenzie Allen is a feminist. However, because I watched the series at the same time I conducted this study, I noticed that she seemed to operate from the same princi-ples and the same ethical framework as my study participants. Therefore, given that her leadership exemplifies some of my findings, I will take license and use the phrase “feminist leadership” to include Allen’s leadership behaviors.

The most obvious correlation between my findings and Commander is the marginalization experienced by the leaders. Study findings indicate that because feminists construct themselves differently from traditional leadership models, they are often marginalized.

Likewise, throughout the series, Allen tried to establish her credibility, seek respect and acceptance and fight to get cooperation. A woman has never been President. Allen was also an independent. Naturally she was perceived as dif-ferent. She looked different from former presidents, saw things differently and made decisions differently.

In the series pilot, Allen’s first action after taking the oath of office was to send a covert operation to rescue a Nigerian woman from execution by stoning for having a child out of wedlock. Allen’s advisers told her it was not her place to inter-fere. Allen felt differently. Study participant Melissa said, “Women see things differently from the way men do. Our experience makes us different in the way we approach questions, and the way questions affect us.”

My findings indicate that feminist leaders struggle against stereotypes, masculine leadership models and cultural expectations. This further complicates their positionality and adds to their marginalization.

Ambivalence toward power

Followers of Commander know that Allen was vice president and assumed the presidency in the first episode after President Bridges died of a stroke. She wrestled with whether to step up and take her rightful place or to resign, which she was urged to do, and allow Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (played by Donald Sutherland) to become President.

Templeton wanted the power. He said the presidency was about having the “power to control the universe.” Allen said that was not her style. Templeton argued, “People who don’t want power have no idea what to do with it; they have no idea how to use it when they have it.”

Leadership does not exist without power (Hackman & Johnson, 2004). Study participant Raja said, “Power is a nec-essary evil.” Power dynamics are inherent in organizations; yet feminist leaders have particularly strong feelings of ambivalence toward power. My study participants did not seek administrative positions for the power. In fact, most were asked to become department chair or dean to serve their academic divisions. They believe in servant leadership, but they understand that they hold some power and believe in using power for the good of the organization, or for the greater good. Melissa said, “I dislike the idea of power, but it’s a reality.”

Charlene explained: Power is around us; we’re embedded in it. There are power dynamics going on all the time. Some of it’s subtle, and some of it’s not too subtle… It’s there, and I try to be careful not to over-interpret it. But I also try to name it and to realize what’s going on.

In a two-part episode of Commander, Allen had to resolve an international crisis when a U.S. submarine ran into trouble off the coast of North Korea. There were 155 crewmen aboard with no propulsion and only hours of air. The res-cue had to take place under the radar of the North Koreans or they might retaliate with nuclear weapons. The military generals had ordered the sub into those waters without Allen’s knowledge. When she attempted to work with them to resolve the situation, they acted like petulant children and continued to play power games.

My study participants experience similar power dynamics. Jessie said she frequently feels she is left out of the loop and that decisions are made behind her back. The participants often get caught in power struggles with what they called the “boys’ clubs” at their schools. Allen resolved the crisis not by throwing her power around, but through collaboration and negotiation.

It was obvious that had Templeton been in Allen’s position, he would have challenged North Korea to war. Study participant Melissa said she has learned that “it makes a difference who the leaders are. They are not interchangeable…”

Study participant Alexa said, “If you don’t pay attention to power and you’re in a position of leadership, you’re making a big mistake. Power is a very good thing unless it’s abused.” While ambivalent about power, the participants were nonetheless keenly aware of it. They believe in empowering others rather than hoarding power. Feminist leaders see power as a positive force when used for transformation and social justice.

Alexa explained further: When power is hierarchical, when power is associated solely with position, when power is referent or charismatic power, it is not often that genuine. But if power can be used to influence toward transformation… If you use power for the social good, to help elevate the status to a higher ethical plane, a leader sets the tone in an organization.

MacKenzie Allen seemed to understand that in terms of the U.S. presidency, the leader’s behavior and subsequent use of power sets the tone for a nation, if not for much of the world. She resisted being heavy-handed.

Study participants do the same. Joni reported: I have a responsibility to make sure things turn out well, and if they don’t, I’m the one that needs to take responsi-bility. I have to use my power responsibly to make good outcomes happen. My personal leadership style is to wear it lightly. And it’s tied up with responsibility and fairness. I don’t think it’s fair to use your power indiscriminately or ir-responsibly… and it’s the discrimination, the judgment of when, that’s critical. That’s the difference between a good leader and one who is not as good.

Melissa described her feeling toward power: I think anyone in a position of power has stewardship responsibilities, to understand and be awed by that power and to use it carefully, use it for the good, like a superhero would… I think women administrators are superheroes… They face incredible challenges. So, power is something not a lot of women like to talk about, but it comes with the position. …Use it to do good things.

In the last episode of Commander, Allen discovered that she suddenly had the opportunity and the power to amend the Constitution by passing the Equal Rights Amendment that had been derailed for so many years.

A congressman who was a longtime critic of the ERA died, so the barriers were gone. Rather than spending the rest of her time in office campaigning for re-election, Allen decided to work to pass the ERA, which she felt was the right thing to do.

A social justice agenda

Feminist leaders, my study found, focus on fairness and justice, representing marginalized voices, keeping issues of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation and ability at the forefront of what they do, and transforming institutions. Above all, their work is about equity and social justice. Jessie said, “Probably everything I do is driven by a sense of thinking about issues of equity… and fairness to people on the margins.”

One of the most interesting themes to emerge was the notion of big picture issues. Participants referred to their broad social justice agenda as the “big picture.” The decisions they make and initiatives they implement must fit into that agenda.

Raja explained that she asks herself, “What are my available resources? Women? Students? Faculty? Community? How can I knit all of this into a single big picture that fits into my idea of social justice or gender justice outcomes?”

 One participant was working on establishing a literacy program that would serve the community outside of the university. That is a social justice initiative, with literacy being the big picture.

Unfortunately, much of the work of a college administrator takes her away from her larger feminist goals. Charlene explained: The day-to-day encroaches on that all the time, the minutia. I could spend my day, every day, in fact I do it a lot, on minutia, … responding to this request or …putting out this little fire, etc. So I have to step back and talk to myself about how do I get back to the big agenda?

In Commander, Allen had no time to set an agenda. Instead, she always had to react to a major crisis: avert an oil spill along the coast of Florida after a tanker was damaged in a hurricane; free American hostages in Turkey from a militant Kurdish group or find the co-conspirators in a terrorist cell that planned to bomb American schools.

But in each episode, she had to make big decisions and decide what was right from a social justice standpoint. In episode three, Allen had to find out who executed nine American DEA agents in Latin America. It was a dictator and a drug lord who had overthrown the democratically elected leader. To bring him to justice, Allen ordered his cocoa crops and cocaine labs destroyed. The people then revolted and demanded the return of their rightful leader. By this action, Allen simultaneously spared lives, destroyed the drug agriculture and the cocaine labs in the small country and arrested a terrorist dictator. Her decision making was based on social justice concerns.


Like MacKenzie Allen, the feminist leaders in my study are very tenacious. They have to be in order to navigate the unfriendly terrain of academia where they are often marginalized and where they often encounter power struggles. It is difficult to focus on social justice issues when day-to-day responsibilities, attitudes, and organizational constraints get in the way.

I discussed only three of the findings from my study of feminist leadership, as illustrated by the behaviors of President MacKenzie Allen. The study found that feminist leadership principles are conducive to creating more nurturing, equitable academic communities.

One can only imagine the possibilities if there were more feminist leaders in higher education and a leader like MacKenzie Allen in the White House.

This article is based on Barton’s dissertation, completed as part of requirements for earning a PhD in 2006 in higher education administration and women’s and gender studies from the University of Toledo.

Contact her at trb1760@toast.com

If you missed Commander in Chief, you can download episodes or the whole series to an iPod at iTunes.com

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