Does a Glass Ceiling Persist in Politics?

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

With her abrupt exit this week from consideration for the Senate, Caroline Kennedy added her name to a growing list: women who have sought the nation's highest offices only to face insurmountable hurdles.

Like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin before her, Kennedy illustrated what some say is an enduring double standard in the handling of ambitious female office-seekers. Even as more women step forward as contenders for premier political jobs, observers say, few seem able to get there.

In less than two months, Kennedy, 51, was transformed from a beloved, if elusive, national icon into a laughingstock in the New York media, mocked for her verbal tics and criticized for her spotty voting record. After she withdrew from consideration, speculation floated that she had done so to avoid discussion of an illegal nanny and back taxes, charges that people close to Kennedy disputed and that New York Gov. David A. Paterson's office indicated in a statement yesterday were not factors. Paterson plans to name a successor today to Clinton, who vacated the Senate seat to become President Obama's secretary of state.

Many political observers dismissed the notion that Kennedy's difficulties had anything to do with gender, noting that she came across as a novice and sought appointment just as the national tolerance for family dynasties seemed to ebb. Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist, said any suggestion that Kennedy was treated unfairly because of her sex was "nonsense." "The New York press corps is an equal opportunity candidate-basher," he said. "New York politics is rough and tumble, and she was too much of a lady for it. This is a very tough place to do politics in."

Nonetheless, during Kennedy's candidacy, three other Senate vacancies were filled with far less drama by little-known men. Michael Bennet (D), a 44-year-old schools superintendent from Denver who had never held elected office, was sworn in yesterday to take the Colorado seat vacated by Ken Salazar (D), who became interior secretary. In Delaware, Vice President Biden was replaced by his own chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, widely seen as a placeholder so that Biden's son can run for the seat in 2010, after he returns from Iraq.

And in Illinois, Roland W. Burris (D) ultimately gained the seat vacated by Obama, despite being picked by a governor charged with corruption and the open opposition of both the Democratic majority and the incoming president.

"There's something different about when women run," said Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant and a close ally of Kennedy. Echoing the complaints of many other family friends, Shrum noted that much of the criticism of Kennedy centered on her demeanor -- her soft voice and use of the phrase "you know" -- similar to the types of complaints that were so prevalent during the campaigns of Clinton and Palin.

At the outset of the presidential campaign, Clinton was widely favored to win the Democratic nomination, as well as the presidency. But her quest was trumped by Obama. Palin was initially celebrated as John McCain's running mate, before questions about her qualifications weighed down the Republican ticket.

Advisers to Clinton and Palin -- and the candidates themselves -- complained at various times about treatment they considered biased. But their rivals said their problems had nothing to do with gender, but rather with personal flaws.

Women did little better in congressional elections, as their numbers remained virtually stagnant. The House added four women, bringing the total to 75 of the 435 members. The number of women in the Senate -- 16 -- will either stay the same or go up by one, depending on who replaces Clinton.

Some female candidates say they face media scrutiny and public criticism on questions that rarely derail male contenders.

For example, another prominent New Yorker, Timothy F. Geithner, withstood questions about more than $30,000 in unpaid back taxes and an improperly documented household helper but has moved ahead as the future Treasury secretary.

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