Getting a woman in the White House, post-2008

By Anne E. Kornblut
Published by Crown Publishers, $25

On Page 1 of this somewhat depressing but entirely engaging book, Washington Post political reporter Anne Kornblut lays out her premise: The 2008 election “set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades.” In this first paragraph I reveal my bias -- I agree with her.

The case I have been making since the results were in last November is: After what happened in 2008, why would any male politician think it’s a good idea to run a woman as his party’s standard-bearer, and why would any woman in her right mind want to take on that challenge?

Even before I read this book, I thought the blatantly sexist comments about and questions to both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin would discourage women thinking about running for office, but seeing those comments and questions collected in one place is daunting indeed.

Opinion mongers along the political spectrum felt free to make all kinds of outrageous cracks about Clinton. One compared her to the Glenn Close character in “Fatal Attraction.” One said that she made him “involuntarily cross my legs.” Another asked whether “Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes.” The New York Times referred to the candidate’s laugh as a “cackle.” We all know that it’s a witch who “cackles,” and we know what rhymes with witch, another word Clinton staffers were amazed to hear voters apply to the former first lady. And how about those Hillary Clinton “nutcrackers” sold in airport shops!

At the Republican Convention in Minnesota, the rumors about Sarah Palin’s baby completely floored me. I couldn’t believe that grown men, and, yes, some women, were arguing about whether the Alaska governor could have flown home from Texas if she was leaking amniotic fluid. Some of my colleagues had to be educated as to what that was, but that didn’t stop them from voicing strong opinions. Apparently our newsroom was not the only one where this unbelievably intimate question was discussed -- Kornblut tells us that one reporter actually called a campaign staffer to ask about it.

Then came the endless questions about who would take care of the children if Palin won the vice presidency. Here’s a tip for people who claim that’s not a sexist question: Have you ever heard a male candidate asked that? No, never, even though the last I heard most of them have children. If it’s a question you wouldn’t ask a man, your sexism alarm should be sounding. Another clue that in 2008 nobody was ringing sexism alarms: In a Chicago city bar there was a portrait of a naked Palin holding a machine gun. A Chicago newspaper treated it as a cute feature story.

While Kornblut makes that “no sexism alarms ringing” point very effectively, she doesn’t give either Clinton or Palin a pass. She cites the failures of both candidates in their outreach to women, notes that Clinton essentially ran as a man -- went to Selma but not Seneca Falls -- and never gave a speech stressing the historic nature of her candidacy until her concession. Palin did a little more by way of directly appealing to women, but her candidacy was so flawed, and so ill-served by the McCain campaign, that there was no consistency in her message beyond her “maverick” mantra.

Traditional feminists who disagreed with Palin on the issues derided her, and as the story line on Palin became more and more negative, and her own behavior more peculiar, one staffer attributed her distress to “postpartum depression.” Those kinds of comments didn’t end with the election. When Palin quit as governor of Alaska, a television anchor wondered, “Could she be pregnant again?”

Beyond Clinton and Palin, Kornblut describes the roadblocks all female candidates must hurdle, dubbed facetiously as “hair, hemlines and husbands,” and as she tackles the question of what it will take to win, looks at the women who have successfully maneuvered around them. Women prosecutors have an edge, she concludes, since they are tough on bad guys and hang out with law-enforcement types. Having survived breast cancer can also be a plus as a show of courage. Given the awful incidence of that disease, there are plenty of candidates who have proved that thesis.

And there’s one area where female candidates have an advantage: corruption. They are seen as the “clean” candidates both in this country and abroad, where 21 women have been elected heads of state just since 2000, many of them chosen “to clean up the mess” made by men. But those women were in place -- ready to take over because they had come through a political pipeline. Kornblut quotes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s observation: “People don’t emerge full-blown as the leader of a country.” Women enter the pipeline, says Rice, when political parties decide to encourage them to run.

Much more encouragement and recruitment has to happen in this country for the pathetically puny American pipeline to grow wide enough to produce a woman president. That, Kornblut tells us, is what female political activists have concluded post-2008.

Has recruiting women candidates been made more difficult by the treatment Clinton and Palin received? Former Arizona governor and now Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano worries that younger women only hear how hard it is to run, that no one talks about the joy of politics. And she scoffs at the notion that women have to be convinced that they can handle the job: “As opposed to, you know, what? Look at these yahoo guys that have been in public office for 200 years.”

She makes an excellent point, and I wish her great success in attracting women to the political arena. But I suspect the countless women who cringed at the Hillary Clinton nutcrackers in the airports will be more than a little wary about entering the fray.

[Cokie Roberts is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio and a political commentator for ABC News.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here