Shattering the glass ceiling

The United States has elected 44 presidents since its founding — all of them men. 

In her new book, Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, Washington Post reporter Anne Kornblut explores the reasons behind this and the challenges female presidential candidates face.

Kornblut notes that female politicians are plagued by questions of their toughness, which she claims is an essential quality for a woman to possess if she is to have a successful career in politics.

She points to the electoral successes of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) to illustrate her point. Both women are former prosecutors who built a record of being tough on crime. 

But on the national level, the question of toughness becomes more complicated.

Of the five women who have run for the presidential nomination of a major party, all were labeled as weak. In 2000, Elizabeth Dole was unable to shake doubts about her toughness, leading donors to question her viability as a candidate and Dole unable to finance her campaign. 

Eight years later, another woman would run for the White House, but this time she would have the toughness others lacked.

If any woman had the requisite experience and toughness needed to win the presidency, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Mark Penn, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, had conducted polling that showed the electorate viewed her as tough and, from the beginning of her campaign, Clinton gave that impression.

“She has to be positioned as commander in chief. This is not the 1990s. This is a time of international terrorism — and women have a special burden to carry,” one adviser recalled Penn saying. “We should maximize her strengths.” 

But Clinton faltered. The magic formula of toughness seemed not to be working in her case.

Why?

Toughness, it turns out, is a double-edged sword for female politicians. Clinton was too tough. She served as her own attack dog and kept the more humanizing stories at a distance, even as senior campaign officials urged her to soften her tone. Her vitriolic attacks and sharp tone created a distance between her and the voters, not allowing them to feel a connection. Many inside the Clinton campaign, Kornblut writes, believed that caustic tone and emotional distance played a big part in her primary loss.

The question of toughness is a double standard for female politicians, one of the many they face. From the issue of child-rearing to the conduct of their spouses, female politicians are held to a higher level of accountability than their male counterparts. 

The actions of the wives of male candidates are rarely mentioned in campaigns, but in the 2008 Democratic primary Bill Clinton’s past transgressions became an issue that Hillary had to address. Likewise, male candidates with young children are almost never asked how they can be a strong leader and a good parent. It is assumed they can do both. But, for women, this assumption of balancing work and family frequently comes into play.

Notes from the Cracked Ceiling is an engrossing book, and Kornblut’s masterful writing style is on full display. But, in a way, the book is a sad tale about women and the presidency. The answer of who will break the glass ceiling or when it will be done remains unclear.

In the next election, the mostly likely candidate is former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But all the negative press she received following the release of her book, combined with her high disapproval ratings, puts her viability as a serious candidate in doubt. 

And White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a man who has a finger on the pulse of up-and-coming stars in politics, was unable to name a single woman he believed could win the presidency, pointing not to talent but to the barriers women face.

The woman who eventually becomes the first female president may be in politics now but have a low public profile, as President Barack Obama did in 2004, Kornblut writes. Or she may be found in the ranks of future generations. This uncertainty about the future of women and the presidency is, sadly, the enduring message of the book.