Examining Glass Ceiling In Presidential Politics

The 2008 presidential campaign was supposed to herald a new era for women in politics, but more than a year later the proverbial glass ceiling still appears hard to break through. Anne Kornblut, author of the new book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What it will take for a Woman to win, says no one has figured how female candidates should present themselves.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The 2008 presidential campaign was supposed to herald a new era for women in politics. Sarah Palin shot from Alaskan obscurity to the number two spot on the Republican ticket, and she was a big hit at the GOP convention.

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Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Vice-Presidential Candidate): I love those hockey moms. You know, they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Republicans thought they had a star, and they did until she stumbled badly in a series of high-profile interviews. After that, her star began to fade among some voters.

On the other side, Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination early on, a sure-fire bet to make history as the first woman to head a presidential ticket until a candidate from the south side of Chicago edged her out with his own historic campaign. Despite the close loss, Clinton was optimistic about the future in her concession speech.

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Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): And although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: But more than a year later, political watchers in both parties have concluded that the proverbial ceiling, even with all those cracks, is still pretty hard to break through.

Anne Kornblut spent months chasing Clinton and Palin across the country during their campaigns. She writes about the experience in a new book called "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win."

I asked Kornblut whether John McCain and the Republican Party had considered how the press and the public would react to a female candidate.

Ms. ANNE KORNBLUT (Author, "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win): It's worth noting that all of the people who made the decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket were, of course, men. You had a male campaign manager, a series of very senior men on the McCain campaign and the candidate himself.

I think they failed to take into account that some of the personal criticism that women have faced at much lower levels, you know, running for mayor, for governor, for senator, might actually occur if they put a woman on the ticket, and I think they failed to appreciate the level of excitement that they thought would only be used for the good for them on the ticket, but also can be used for the negative. That certainly was the case in Sarah Palin's case.

NORRIS: You know, I had the experience of actually having my head almost bitten off when I asked about the juggling of family responsibilities while also traveling on a campaign bus by one of the McCain aides, and I know several reporters also had similar experiences. They seemed not to take that into account early on.

Ms. KORNBLUT: They were very unprepared for those kinds of questions, questions that would be unique to women. And, in fact, some of this was true for both the Clinton and the Palin campaigns. They both struggled with questions that are unique to women, that are to do with gender.

In Clinton's case, they were very different questions. It was what kind of woman are you? Are you feminine enough? But in Sarah Palin's case, the question of can you be a mother and an office holder? What kind of impact will having a small child and several small children with you be? - was one that they weren't prepared to answer. And they fell back on "that's not a fair question," when, in fact, women who run for office all over the country know that's something they're going to face. Any woman is going to have to be able to answer these questions, even if they don't like them.

NORRIS: I want to turn to Hillary Clinton, where her campaign seemed to make an assumption from the outset that Clinton would appeal to women of all ages, of all stripes, of all backgrounds. That turned out to be a major miscalculation. Why?

Ms. KORNBLUT: It sure did. And in hindsight, it's easy to forget that Hillary Clinton lost women in Iowa and lost big. She actually came in third after John Edwards. And among young women, women under about the age of 30, she was in the teens in terms of her support.

But even among older women, the Clinton campaign spent so much time focusing on proving her toughness, talking about the war, talking about national security because, of course, that had been a traditional weakness for women, something they felt they had to overcome, that they began to lose support among women who were not sure what kind of woman she was, wasn't sure - weren't sure she was in touch with her feminine side. And she lost some very prominent women early on, in 2007, of course the most important of which, arguably, was Oprah.

Once the campaign evolved, she did begin to pick up steam among women, and by the end of it, especially older women were the core of her support. But early on, that was not necessarily the case.

NORRIS: Why was Hillary Clinton so uncomfortable with emphasizing her gender? Even up to the end, she was removing gender-specific references from her now-famous concession speech. And even that line where she noted the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, that was something that was offered to her by a man. That wasn't a line that she came up with on her own.

Ms. KORNBLUT: That's right. Her speechwriter, Jim Kennedy, inserted that line as he was working on the draft, and it became the most memorable line of the speech.

The story of that concession speech is actually fascinating. She had struggled throughout the campaign with this idea of whether she should give a gender speech. Long before Barack Obama gave his heralded speech on race, her campaign had thought about it. Should they talk about it? Should they go to Wellesley? Should they go to Seneca Falls? Should they remind the nation of what it would mean to elect a woman president?

Ultimately, they decided not to. They were concerned about turning off male voters. They were worried about emphasizing her gender. She said over and over in the campaign: I'm not running because I'm a woman. And her aides often said that was just part of her nature. That was part of who she was.

And growing up in the time she did, in a time when women in law firms in prominent positions were told not to put pictures of their children in their office because their colleagues might think they were too focused on their families. This had been ingrained in her, that you had to prove your toughness as a woman. You had to overcompensate and talk about the substance of your work.

NORRIS: In the end, do you come to the conclusion that a woman candidate for higher office does have a harder row to hoe, that there still are many, many obstacles?

Ms. KORNBLUT: Oh, absolutely. It's hard for anyone to run for office, right? But for women, no one seems to have entirely cracked the code of how to present herself as a woman, what kind of woman she'll be who will both be taken seriously as an office holder but also accessible as a person.

In Hillary Clinton's case, she learned towards the end of the campaign to keep that balance. But from everyone I've spoken to, it seems that whoever's going to win someday, whatever woman is going to run for president and win, will be the kind of woman who's learned to walk that balance, to be tough but not too tough, to be a woman but not so much of a woman that she's diminished her credentials as a lawmaker.

NORRIS: Anne, before I let you go, I just want to ask you about this wonderful anecdote that you have at the end of the book, where you ask Rahm Emanuel, who is now the chief of staff at the White House, what it will take for a woman to run and win.

And when you're talking to him, he's fiddling with his BlackBerry. He's having a hard time answering what seems to be a pretty simple question that you put to him. Tell us about that scene, and help us understand what it says about the core question that you pose in your book.

Ms. KORNBLUT: Well, I'd gone to the White House to interview Rahm Emanuel, mostly about Nancy Pelosi, who I had also interviewed for the book. But I asked him, because he used to be the chief recruiter for the Democrats in the House, of candidates. So I thought he might know some hidden secret out there.

I said, you know, what's it going to take? How soon do you think it will be before a woman wins? And he was, frankly, stumped. And it took him a few minutes, and he didn't have an answer. And finally he said, well, you know, if we could elect Barack Obama, it shouldn't be that hard to find a woman and elect her.

But he didn't have a list of names. And as I went around the country asking other people the same question, very few people have a list of names. And so while there's a few names here and there, I would not at all be surprised if Janet Napolitano someday runs or Claire McCaskill; in Florida, Alex Sink, who's running for governor, might run someday. But really, it's only about a half-dozen names that people were able to furnish of women who might run.

So when it comes to the practical question of who will it be and when will that happen, I think it might actually be farther away than people think.

NORRIS: Anne Kornblut, thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. KORNBLUT: Thank you so much for having me.

NORRIS: That's Anne Kornblut. Her book is called "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win."

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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Notes From The Cracked Ceiling'

'Notes from the Cracked Ceiling' cover i i
'Notes from the Cracked Ceiling' cover

In the last days of the 2008 presidential election, my newspaper, the Washington Post, ran a front-page story announcing that it had been the "Year of the Woman." The article was full of upbeat quotes from the usual suspects in the women's movement celebrating the barrier- breaking triumphs of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. The trails that had been blazed! The ceilings almost shattered! It was a heartwarming picture — at first.

But in hindsight, 2008 turned out to be just the opposite for women: a severe letdown, with damaging consequences. It revived old stereotypes, divided the women's movement, drove apart mothers and daughters, and set back the cause of equality in the political sphere by decades.

How?

It wasn't just that Clinton lost the Democratic nomination, and then Palin lost the vice presidency, in rapid succession. It was that they lost in such resounding, devastating ways. Their candidacies unleashed virulent strains of sexism across the country that many had thought were already eradicated.

Even that dated term, sexism, was insufficient to describe the hostility they provoked. Women, after all, were among their fiercest critics. Clinton, the former First Lady, and Palin, the popular Alaska governor, were transformed into living caricatures by men and women, liberals and conservatives, the young and the old — their flaws distorted beyond the point of recognition, their personalities mocked to the core. Each of them received the kind of national ridicule that is generally reserved for philandering politicians (like John Edwards or Mark Sanford) or corrupt ones (like Rod Blagojevich) rather than for legitimate if flawed candidates whose greatest sin was having the audacity to run — or, in Clinton's case, continuing to run after it appeared highly likely she was going to lose. Even Michelle Obama, not herself on any ballot, had to fend off accusations that she was too "strong" or too "angry" as she campaigned alongside her husband, eventually toning down dramatically her persona as a career woman.

The Clinton and Palin candidacies also dealt a blow to the remnants of the women's movement — and pitted women against one another everywhere. Traditional Democratic women's groups splintered during the primaries — some backing Clinton, others backing Senator Barack Obama, igniting internal warfare. Conservative women broke apart a few months later as they struggled with the question of whether to stand by Palin. The conservative-leaning columnist Kathleen Parker led the Republican defections, followed by Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, who disgustedly waved Palin off as an empty vessel who "doesn't see m to understand the implications of her own thoughts." The contrarian writer Camille Paglia, meanwhile, praised the Alaska governor's "frontier grit and audacity," and Elaine Lafferty, a former editor of Ms. Magazine and Clinton supporter, showed up onstage at a Palin rally.

In August, when word leaked that Obama might pick a woman other than Clinton as his running mate, her supporters erupted in outrage. Feminism, indeed. In late October, the disturbing notion that Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, had picked Palin just because she was "hot" blossomed into a mainstream media subplot.

But perhaps the disconnect should not have bee n a surprise, given what had happened two years earlier, in 2006, when Nancy Pelosi made her historic ascent to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was supposed to be the "Year of the Woman," too. Pelosi had worked her way up the congressional leadership ranks the old- fashioned way — by earning the loyalty of her peers and spearheading a massive fund-raising blitz that fueled the Democratic takeover of Congress. It was the first time a woman had ever won the position, and it put Pelosi second in line to the presidency, making her the most successful woman ever in U.S. politics. Her victory had broken "the marble ceiling," as she put it, and produced a triumphant image: a 66-year-old grandmother standing at the front of the House chamber, wielding the gavel, in charge.

Yet Pelosi's victory masked a larger truth: 2006 was a terrible year for female candidates overall. Numerous women running in close contests — most of them well-financed, qualified, and talented — had lost. By one measure, just 11 percent of the Democratic women in targeted House races won their races, compared with 95 percent of the men in similar contests.

Overall, in both parties, 18 women ran in districts with open seats, and 53 women ran as challengers. But of those 71 candidates, only ten women won — a pathetic rate of return.

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