Clinton, Palin and the Enduring Sexism in American Politics

Anne Kornblut's "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling" looks at how far America has not come.

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By John A. Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Was it a good thing, or a bad thing, that Geraldine Ferraro's daughter, and many other young women, infuriated their feminist moms by voting for Barack Obama, instead of Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries? Was it a promising sign, or an awful betrayal of sisterhood, when two of the nation's smartest conservative commentatorsPeggy Noonan and Kathleen Parkerbeat up on Sarah Palin as unqualified and dim?

I am inclined to think that both of these intriguing questions—served up by Anne Kornblut in her new book, Notes from the Cracked Ceilingare evidence of a healthy democracy, where women employ independent judgment instead of blind loyalty to gender.

With women serving on the Supreme Court and many a state and federal bench; as secretary of state and in other cabinet slots; in governor's mansions and CEO suites and the top offices of our leading universities; and wielding gavels in the House and Senate, I'm in the camp of those who suspect that the shortage of female U.S. presidents is a cultural hangover, or a political aberration, that will be inevitably rectifiedmaybe as soon as 2012. But Kornblut (a former colleague) isn't as sure. As a top political reporter for the Washington Post, she witnessed the 2008 campaign up close, and came away stunned by the sexism in the cultural and political reaction to Clinton and Palin.

"The basic vibe ... has been one of progress, change, and opportunityand in that spirit there is a sunny belief that a woman will be elected to the White House soon," Kornblut writes, of folks like me. But "the optimism is at odds with the evidence."

Clinton and Palin "may not have lost because they were women," Kornblut says, "but their sex played an outsize role in the year's events, coloring every decision they made, every public perception, and every reaction by their campaigns.

"It was no small thing that Palin was chosen exclusively by men, in an effort to win women, her strategy devised by men who had never run a woman for a high-level office before. Nor was it a minor factor that Clinton had spent so much time thinking about genderoverthinking it, arguably—and concluded that she had to run with masculine toughness."

Kornblut has a fine reporter's eye for detail and connections. Sexist incidents that, by themselves, are easily dismissed take on added weight when she catalogues how often and regularly they occurred. If the current talk radio and cable TV culture is a true window on our national psyche, we are one bunch of sick piggies, folks.

Hillary was called a tank, a scold, a lousy mother, a lesbian, a bitch. Hecklers called on her to iron their shirts. In major media outlets, commentators said she was a castrating harpy, or compared her to the murderous Glenn Close character in the movie Fatal Attraction. The New York Times described her laugh as a witch-like "cackle."

Sarah was the "caribou Barbie," ripped apart by Katie Couric and lampooned by Tina Fey. She was accused of staging a pregnancy to save one of her daughters from the shame of life as a single momand of being a lousy mother, for maintaining her career with a newborn at home. Internet searches for "Sarah Palin bikini" and "Sarah Palin naked" soared. Conservative male commentators seemed fixated on her "babe" looks and "heartthrob" appeal and, after the election, McCain campaign staffers called her a diva, a whack job, a hillbilly, an addictive shopper, a narcissist.

Kornblut supports her anecdotal evidence with polling and academic data and intriguing interviews. She catches White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel making the argument of the A-Woman-President-Is-Inevitable camp, and then blithering and fumbling when trying to name a likely contender. And former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who should know, tells Kornblut that: "I, frankly, think we crossed the bar on African-Americans quite some time ago. I'm not sure we've crossed it on women."

Kornblut doesn't shield her subjects from their flaws. There were plenty of female tacticians on Clinton's campaign staff whose advice helped her lose the nomination. And, as sympathetic as she is to Clinton and Palin, Kornblut ably dissects the shortcomings of their performances as candidates.

But Rice's appearance in the book raises a question that Kornblut doesn't give as much attention: Why don't more qualified women, like Condi, or any of several dozen U.S. senators and representatives, governors, federal judges, CEOs, or university presidents want the American presidency enough to run for it?

Kornblut devotes far more space to the hurdles and obstacles faced by Sarah and Hillary than to the question of why there are not more Sarahs and Hillaries. Is there a genetic imprintor is it the cultural hostilitythat keeps women from the all-consuming, soul-crushing compulsion shown by the boys to lead the herd?

Maybe Palin will demonstrate the necessary discipline, drive, and audacity, like that shown by Barack Obama in 2008. Or maybe she'll be content with her current level of fame and fortune, and not reach for the Oval Office. We will see.

Kornblut doesn't oversell her book. It is, as its title indicates, no sociology text, but a collection of insightful "notes" made by one sharp professional woman with a front row seat in 2008, who came away angered (like many Clinton and Palin admirers) by what she saw. The questions she raises are provocative, and will shake an open-minded reader from complacency. They did me.

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