It now appears the opposite may have happened: Women — particularly the accomplished and successful ones who would make the most appealing candidates — have been struck not by the opportunity but by the toll that politics can take.
“Both Clinton and Palin’s campaigns also provided many potential candidates with a window into how women are treated when they run for office. And what women of both political parties saw likely confirmed some of their worst fears about the electoral arena,” wrote professors Jennifer L. Lawless of American University and Richard L. Fox of Loyola Marymount University. In January, they published a study on the under-representation of women in U.S. politics, where they analyzed the different attitudes of men and women toward the endeavor.
Potential female candidates have seen others have a tough go since then. During the 2010 midterm elections, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was vilified in $65 million worth of Republican ads, 161,203 spots in all, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The speaker was portrayed as, among other things, a cackling witch.
Pelosi insisted that the barrage — the most intense felt by any speaker since Newt Gingrich — was a tribute to her effectiveness in passing the Democrats’ agenda, including the health-care law that is the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the current presidential campaign, Newsweek’s cover featured a close-up photo of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) that made her appear unhinged. Although those in the Republican presidential field have taken plenty of out-of-the-mainstream positions on issues (moon colonies?), the only woman in the race was asked on Fox News Sunday: “Are you a flake?”
Bachmann’s allies bristled at what they say was dismissive treatment and an intense focus on her appearance.
“There aren’t enough women who want to put themselves through the grinder of the political process,” said Brett O’Donnell, who was one of Bachmann’s top advisers. “We’ve got to stop everything about whether a candidate has cankles, and how she does her nails, and does she wear her hair up or down.”
After the 2010 midterm contests, the number of women in the U.S. House dropped for the first time in more than 30 years, albeit by one seat. There are now 73 voting members of the House who are women.
A record 17 women — 12 Democrats, five Republicans — now serve in the Senate, a number that has held steady since 2009. But with two of the senior Republicans retiring this year, and likely to be replaced by men, it is not certain whether there will be that many in the chamber come January.
At a mere 16.8 percent of House membership, women’s representation in the United States’ national legislature last year ranked 78th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan, according to statistics compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.