How Much Did Hillary Clinton's Historic Run Really Break the Glass Ceiling?

She made it further than any other woman, but the barriers for a woman becoming president remain high.


The grandmother's words were meant to encourage her smart young granddaughter. But the limitations of the long-ago, you-go-girl advice still make Toby Graff smile, if a bit ruefully. "My grandma always told me that I could grow up and be the first woman vice president," says Graff, 37, a Lifetime Networks executive who was a White House press aide to first lady Hillary Clinton.

It would be a tidy denouement if now Senator Clinton's whisker-close-but-losing battle to become the first woman major party presidential nominee convinced Graff that grandmothers like hers could envision a White House path repaved for women. Clinton, after all, won 21 primaries and a caucus, becoming the first woman ever to win even a single presidential contest in which delegates were at stake. Shirley Chisholm won three Democratic Party contests in 1972, but no delegates were up for grabs. In losing the Democratic race to Sen. Barack Obama, the first African-American major party nominee, Clinton came closer to capturing the prize than any woman before her, including Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who in 1872 became the first woman presidential candidate.

But though recent national polls, including one by Graff's own cable network, show that Clinton's effort made women significantly more optimistic that they would see a female president in their lifetime, Graff and others remain skeptical that persistent barriers to women in poli-tics—from traditional child-rearing imperatives to a stark and enduring political ambition gap—have been altered in any lasting way by this year's contest.

And, like many, Graff saw Clinton not as an everywoman candidate, but as a unique and advantaged one with a substantial war chest, name recognition, and network of powerful operatives that dated from her husband's two White House terms. "She was not 'a' woman," Graff says. "She was 'the' woman."

Clinton's historic run against an equally historic candidate provides a lens through which to examine the reasons that no woman has cracked that ultimate glass ceiling, while western allies like Britian had its Margaret Thatcher and Germany its Angela Merkel. And it illuminates the perplexing state of American women and politics, one in which Democrat Nancy Pelosi has been presiding as the first female Speaker of the House, but where the growth of women in statewide elective office has been largely stagnant for 15 years. It reveals a rift between many feminists of Clinton's generation, who viewed her candidacy as the culmination of the civil rights wars of the 1960s, and scores of younger women who showed little affinity for the senator from New York and what they saw as old-school identity politics. And it raises questions about where the once powerful women's movement, now showing evidence of fraying, will go post-Hillary Clinton.

The great divide. Marie Wilson, founder of the nonprofit White House Project, which has trained thousands of potential female leaders, says she has seen the young-old women's divide growing for more than a decade. "The closer women get to achieving power, the more conversation there is about that, and the more concern there is among some women about how men may react," Wilson says. And though she believes that Clinton's candidacy, and, in particular, some of the media coverage, reminded many that "sexism is alive and well," this year's Democratic contest suggests that a new, more diffuse and less partisan women's movement is unfolding. "We are at the end of a time when you only look at advocacy and victimization," says Wilson, 57. "We know darn well we're not there yet, but these young women are deeply thoughtful, and to go about getting power, we have to be united."

But getting that power and sustaining it is all about having prospects in the political pipeline. And that has remained a vexing issue, despite efforts of leaders like Wilson and former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, 58, founding director of the Women and Public Policy program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and president of her own foundation that works to develop women leaders. Though Hunt, appointed ambassador to Austria during the Clinton administration, says she sees progress, particularly in women assuming legislative leadership roles, the raw numbers suggest a mixed bag at best.