When psychology professor Ann Moliver Ruben put the phrase “someday, a woman will be president” on a T-shirt in 1995, she considered it a symbolic statement on gender equality, not a realistic prospect for the near future. Inspired by the character Margaret from Dennis the Menace, Ruben sold a couple of hundred shirts to her local Miami-area Walmart to help break down stereotypes that erode girls’ confidence and teach young boys sexism.
The prospect of a hypothetical woman hypothetically becoming president at some undetermined point in America’s future was such a radical notion to one Walmart buyer (and, allegedly, a few customers) that she pulled the shirt from the store’s shelves. It quickly became a national scandal with Ruben at its center. (Earlier this week, Walmart spokeswoman Danit Marquardt sent me this statement: “Wow, it still pains us that we made this mistake 20 years ago. 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.”)
Now 91 years old, Ruben is amazed and elated that she’s lived to see a woman ascend so close to the presidency, and her political activism hasn’t slowed down. In March, months before Donald Trump became his party’s official nominee, Ruben wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette comparing him to blustering bully Dennis the Menace.
I spoke by phone with Ruben, who is now retired and living in Pittsburgh, on Thursday afternoon about her introduction to feminism, her feelings on Hillary Clinton, and her plans for next January.
The Miramar Walmart may have taken your shirts off its shelves, but it seems like the backlash was powerful—women from all around the country spoke out to support you. How did that feel?
I was a member of the American Association of University Women, and they came and they marched to protest Walmart’s decision to ban the sale of the T-shirt. They didn’t just march: They put notices on the cars that were parked there, telling people “Don’t shop here, they’re banning this wonderful T-shirt.” So, you talk about support! There it was for everyone to see.
That’s how Walmart ended up being shamed into buying [tens of thousands] more T-shirts. And I want you to know that the profits from that sale took my husband and me on a European cruise. We had such a good time. We went to Italy, oh, we went to France. As I look back on it, they were just wonderful moments.
But you know, today is a wonderful moment, too, just in reflecting on these happy times. And I’m grateful that I have reached 91 years and this wonderful Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to fulfill my dream. I’m excited.
What do you foresee for little girls who might spend their whole childhoods never knowing a white male president?
All I saw growing up my whole life was a white president, and when we got Barack Obama, I was thrilled. I worked so hard to see him elected. So I don’t know—I can’t foresee the future. I can only be content with what I have now.
When my cousin told me when I was 8 years old that a girl could never be president of anything, I became a feminist—that word wasn’t even invented yet. My little cousin Irwin grew up in an age where most of the boys were like Donald Trump. They thought they were great, and they thought little girls were nothing. That’s how my cousin Irwin learned that to tell me that a girl could never be president and a boy could never be a secretary—and that’s something Donald Trump would say today.
How have you seen the world change for women between that moment and this one, the age of Trump?
I think that women like Gloria Steinem—and look at [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg! Look at Ginsburg speaking out! I mean, what a wonderful thing it is to have a woman on the Supreme Court. My God, did you ever think—I never thought we’d ever see that. So women are finding their voice. I have found mine. And I’m so thrilled that I went ahead and put that message on the T-shirt. It has brightened my life and has made me feel so damn good that I went to the University of Pittsburgh and took 25 years to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D. so I could be looked upon as an educated, honorable woman. I look in the mirror and I love what I see.
So you had to get three degrees to get the respect you wanted. Do you think Clinton’s had to work harder than the other candidates to earn respect?
Of course. We demand that she be perfect.
Tell me about the origin of your fabulous T-shirt.
My husband read the Dennis the Menace cartoons every Sunday, and I used to watch him laugh out loud. And one day he said to me, “Annie, you have to read Dennis the Menace today. It’s right up your alley.” And I got the comics section, and there was Margaret asking Dennis, who is building a clubhouse in the tree, if she could join his club.
He said, “No, Margaret, my club is for boys only.” And she said, “Dennis, this is 1993. You’d better get with it.” And it shows Margaret flying in space. It shows Margaret dressed up as a police officer, as a firefighter, as a member in Congress, giving a speech in Washington; and the next to the last picture shows Margaret saying enthusiastically, “someday a woman will be president!” Dennis says to her, “You can be anything you want to be Margaret, but you can’t be a member of my club.”
So I wrote to Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist, and said, “Can I use that one frame of Margaret and put it on a T-shirt?” And he told me what I had to do to get it approved and licensed, and I paid whatever money it took to do that and I’m thrilled that I did it. And this year, I donated 100 of the children’s T-shirts to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, and it gave me such pleasure to think I might be putting a smile on a little girl’s face.
When you created that shirt, could you envision a future when a woman would become a major party’s nominee for president?
No. I never thought about it. I really didn’t. I just knew that whatever I could do to make little girls feel good about themselves, I wanted to do that. And no, honest to God, I never thought that I would see it happen. But I want you to know that even though I’m not so keen on traveling anymore because it’s difficult for me, I’m going to wear my T-shirt and I’m going to be in Washington, D.C. to see Hillary sworn in as our president. Isn’t that a wonderful thing for me to be able to tell you?