A Diamond-Hard Ceiling

When Will Women Reach the Top?

Posted January 11, 2010 at 3:27pm

Remember 1992? Dubbed the “year of the woman,— it was supposed to signal a turning point for females in higher office, with five women newly elected to the Senate — more than ever before ­— and 24 new women in the House.

But, as Washington Post White House correspondent Anne Kornblut tells us in her comprehensive new book, “Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win,— it turns out that 1992 was “just a flash in the pan.—

Of course, today we have a powerful female Speaker, 17 women in the Senate and 76 in the House, an all-time high. There are 28 female chiefs of staff in the Senate and as many as 130 female chiefs in the House. Six women — Secretary of State Clinton, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson — serve in Obama’s Cabinet.

Why, it almost seems as if we’ve come a long way, baby. But step back a minute: While women make up half of the total population, they make up just 17 percent of the Senate and 17.3 percent of the House. That 17 percent statistic seems to be some kind of diamond-hard glass ceiling, because it also represents the percentage of female partners in law firms around the country, a figure that’s been stagnant for a number of years.

Is this progress? Why have we never had a female president? Kornblut asks whether women’s lack of groundbreaking achievement was caused by sexism. She thinks it was. In focusing in particular on the White House aspirations of Clinton and Palin, she writes: “Their candidacies unleashed virulent strains of sexism across the country that many had thought were already eradicated.—

In the case of Palin, these virulent strains included questions about her pregnancy, her daughter’s pregnancy, her appearance and her clothing, Kornblut argues. With Clinton, the talk about Bill Clinton’s infidelity, her attractiveness and her supposed aggression also proved the sexism. Kornblut argues that if women act too female, they’re criticized for being soft, and if they act too male, they’re seen as castrating rhymes-with-witches.

While these are valid points, Kornblut blurs some lines, so that it’s hard to separate out a criticism of a candidate specifically because she is a woman and a critique of any human being who is running for high office. Kornblut doesn’t give enough weight to the ugly truth of political campaigns, especially campaigns for the presidency, where nothing seems to be off-limits.

And even though she painstakingly details the blunders of the Clinton and Palin campaigns, Kornblut doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge how much both women created their own disasters. Clinton appeared to be a relic of her husband’s administration who acted as if her nomination was inevitable; she ran a terrible campaign with poor organization and endless infighting; and, as Kornblut writes, “seemed to develop a tortured approach toward her gender on the campaign trail, sometimes embracing it, sometimes dismissing it, sometimes appearing to overcompensate for it — but rarely appearing at ease with it.— Not only that, but many Clinton supporters seemed to be arguing that voters should support Clinton simply because she’s a woman.

Palin was an odd sort of train wreck from the start: a galvanizing force for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but also so uninformed and inexperienced that she made many other potential supporters cringe. One area in which actual sexism seems to have played a role appeared in questions about whether it was appropriate for the mother of a newborn to hit the campaign trail. Kornblut wisely observes that new fathers would not be asked this question.

Overall, though, the strongest lesson coming from both of their stories is that they played with the big boys and got a little beaten up in the process. If any criticism directed at a woman is deemed unfair and sexist, how can we separate honest criticism from gender bias? Although Clinton and Palin are the main focus, Kornblut also makes the mistake of bringing up Caroline Kennedy’s disastrous attempt to secure Clinton’s Senate seat. The truth is that Kennedy was not even close to being ready to run: She couldn’t articulate why she should be the next Senator from New York, and she had no experience with elected office. This did not have anything to do with her gender.

Kornblut does much better in her examination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), one of the book’s shining success stories. Pelosi’s image today, of a “disciplined but nurturing grandmother, proud to be a woman in power,— was honed over the years and grounded in her upbringing in a political family. Pelosi faced sexism during her rise, being referred to in diminutive terms and considered too pretty to be powerful.

But Pelosi proves the exception to Kornblut’s hypothesis that sexism stops women. In fact, those tests allowed her to develop a thicker skin to block the slights and the insults. She doesn’t take anything personally. “You fight it. But you do not let it get to you,— Pelosi told Kornblut. “It’s just like, that’s their problem.—

Pelosi might prove to be the new model for women’s political success. She’s worked hard to encourage women who are mothers of young children to stay in office, arguing that it’s a plus for a politician to have the perspective of a family.

What Pelosi can’t fix, though, are the long hours away from home, the constant demands and the public scrutiny that political office requires. Maybe the real question is why anyone in her right mind would want to run for and hold public office.