By Lindsey Bever
In 1933, Ann Moliver Ruben said her cousin, Irwin, told her that a girl could never be president.
Decades later, corporate America, it seemed, was trying to tell her the same thing. Ruben, a psychologist from Pittsburgh, had been studying children’s perceptions of women leaders in the 1990s when she stumbled upon a “Dennis the Menace” comic strip in a Sunday newspaper — an episode in which a young, curly-haired feminist named Margaret told him: “Someday a woman will be president!”
Ruben put the slogan on T-shirts and sold them to a Walmart store in Florida, which pulled them from the shelves in the ’90s. According to Ruben, Walmart said that “the message went against their philosophy of family values.”
Walmart did not confirm that the message went against its philosophy of family values, but said it went against its policy of philosophy of political neutrality, according to the Miami Herald.
Following a nationwide uproar, Walmart put them back — and, Ruben said, she later created a new version with a second message on the back: “Someday is now.”
Ruben, a 91-year-old women’s rights advocate, said that “someday” came Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention when Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee for a major party.
“I’ve been waiting 83 years to see what happened yesterday,” she told The Washington Post on Wednesday in a phone interview. “This is a wonderful time in our history, and I thank God I’ve lived to see it happen.”
Clinton is scheduled to formally accept the nomination on Thursday, but in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, she addressed the crowd at the Democratic National Convention at an unprecedented moment in history.
Photos flashed across a jumbotron, showing each of the nation’s 44 presidents — all men and all but one of them white. Then it showed Clinton, breaking through glass.
“I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling yet,” Clinton said, adding: “If there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch, let me just say: I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”
Breaking glass ceilings
Over the decades, Ruben has broken her own glass ceilings. During World War II, she was starting a family and praying for her husband’s safe return from battles overseas while earning a college education at a time when most women did not do that. She received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh — then a master’s in counseling and psychology, and a doctorate in higher education and psychology, according to her website.
“My father told me, ‘Annie, you’re very smart, and whatever you decide to do in your life, you’re going to be successful. So don’t ever give up, Annie,'” she told The Post. “I heard him loud and clear, and that gave me the incentive.”
For years, Ruben was a psychology professor in Florida before she went into private practice, where she said she focused on providing family therapy.
In 1993, Ruben began studying children’s attitudes toward women leaders, surveying 1,500 elementary school students in Miami. She found that nearly half of them believed that only men could be president, according to an article in the Miami Herald the next year.
“The girls who finished the survey were sad,” she told the newspaper at the time. “It was clear that if they’re going to do anything, they’ll have to do it themselves. They can’t count on boys who grow up to be men to help them.”
Ruben created a company called Women are Wonderful Inc., and started selling T-shirts to raise girls’ self-esteem, according to a 1995 report in the Herald.
“I don’t want girls to believe what I grew up believing — that a girl can never be president,” she told the newspaper.
Indeed, more than 20 years ago, it was Ruben’s inspirational T-shirts, based on a cartoon, that created a flap, exposing tension between competing ideals.
‘No girls allowed’
The 1993 “Dennis the Menace” comic showed Dennis building a clubhouse. No girls were allowed. Margaret attempted to school him on all the things girls could do, including growing up to become president.
Ruben said she called the cartoon’s creator, Hank Ketcham, and then got permission from King Features Syndicate to use the frame for a T-shirt.
She sold several dozen to a Walmart store in Miramar, a city in South Florida, but the company pulled the shirts after some customers complained that the message was too political.
“It was determined the T-shirt was offensive to some people and so the decision was made to pull it from the sales floor,” Walmart spokeswoman Jane Bockholt told the Associated Press in September 1995.
Ruben told the news agency at the time that she saw it as a sign that “promoting females as leaders is still a very threatening concept in this country.”
“It’s a tragedy,” she told the Miami Herald at the time. “I think it’s a barometer of the prejudices against females in our society.”
Ruben told The Washington Post on Wednesday that she put one of the T-shirts on her 8-month-old grandson, boosted him atop her shoulders and went to see an Associated Press reporter to get out her story.
The wire version went into newspapers across the country, Ruben said, and women were soon flooding Walmart’s phone lines to voice their concerns.
Ruben said women with the Miami chapter of the American Association of University Women, of which she was a member, marched in protest. Jackie DeFazio, who was AAUW president at the time, wrote a letter to the company’s CEO, saying, “Believing in girls’ potential is neither offensive to the public nor adverse to the family values,” according to an article from the group’s membership magazine.
Almost immediately, Walmart representatives admitted they “made a mistake.”
“A few customers complained about the political nature of the shirts, and we overreacted,” Jay Allen, a spokesman for Walmart, told the Miami Herald in 1995. “That’s what we tend to do when it comes to customers’ concerns. We overreact.
“We should have never pulled the shirts from the shelves in the first place.”
Ruben told the Miami Herald in December 1995 that since the incident, she had received 50,000 orders from women’s groups and other companies, and another 30,000 orders from Walmart, which said it heard customers “loud and clear” and stocked more than 2,000 stores.
“Wow, it still pains us that we made this mistake 20 years ago,” Danit Marquardt, director of corporate communications for Walmart, told The Post on Wednesday in a statement. “We’re proud of the fact that our country — and our company — has made so much progress in advancing women in the workplace, and in society.”
Ruben, it seems, is still a “Dennis the Menace” fan, especially when it comes to illustrating politics.
In March, she penned a letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, asking fellow readers, “Would Dennis vote for Donald Trump?”
My husband, of blessed memory, loved the cartoon created by Hank Ketcham called “Dennis the Menace.” Never did a Sunday go by that reading Dennis didn’t give him a laugh. But I wonder if my Gershon Ruben were living today, would he laugh and see how much his 5-year-old Dennis resembles the guy who wants to be president today, Donald Trump?
I see so many similarities that it truly makes me want to laugh, but instead I cry. That Donald, acting like Dennis, is the Republican front-runner in the polls this election year makes me feel that a lot of us are nuts.
As for Clinton, Ruben told The Post, “when she’s sworn in in D.C. in January, I’m going to be there and I’m going to be wearing my T-shirt.”
Ruben said if she could pass along one message to young girls today, it would be one similar to what her father told her many years ago.
“You’re smart. Get educated. Don’t ever give up on your dream and you’ll make it,” she said. “Hillary made it. She never gave up on her dream.
“We now have a wonderful role model.”