How to shatter the 'highest, hardest' glass ceiling

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut explains three themes that emerge often when discussing women in politics.
By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's approval ratings are soaring. Sarah Palin is now a best-selling author. From this vantage point, it almost seems obvious: the United States is going to elect a woman president. Someday soon. Right?

It would be easy, in the gauzy view of history, to forget how ugly the contest became for the two women who broke new ground in the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember Clinton's sagging eyes, splashed across the Drudge Report, as Rush Limbaugh asked whether the country would want to watch a woman grow old in office? Remember the collective gasp as the Sarah Palin baby controversy -- over whether her fifth child was really hers, followed by the news that her teenage daughter was pregnant -- threatened to overshadow the Republican National Convention?

Most people, including the candidates, would rather forget those moments and focus instead on the breakthrough we did witness in 2008: an election decisively waged and won by Barack Obama, the country's first African American president.

That other milestone still beckons though. Women are running for some of the most critical seats this year, in Massachusetts, California, Texas, Florida and elsewhere. Despite "lipstick on a pig," "beat the bitch," and "iron my shirt," the 2008 election wasn't just a collection of lowlights for female candidates. It was a chance for the country and for women running for high office to learn what it will take for a woman to someday assume the Oval Office.

As a political reporter, I spent more than two and a half years covering the Clinton campaign, and traveled with Palin after her nomination. Here are some lessons, culled from what I witnessed on the campaign trail, for the next female candidate who's aiming to break what Clinton called "the highest, hardest glass ceiling of all."

Don't take women -- especially young women -- for granted.

Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, posited, according to internal campaign documents, that she would win 94 percent of the young female vote -- and that women overall would automatically flock to her side. By the end of the campaign, they did, but that was not the case in the first caucus state, Iowa, where Clinton came in third, behind Obama and former senator John Edwards, and her support among young women was in the teens.

Clinton erred strategically early on, ceding college campuses -- including college women -- to Obama. She also struggled with whether to portray her campaign as "historic," debating the idea of a speech on gender for months. Focused on proving her toughness, she missed out on key endorsements from women, including Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy. Only when women began to see her as under siege during the New Hampshire primary campaign did Clinton begin to pick up steam among the constituency that would rally to her side for the rest of the primaries. But it was too late.

Advisers to Sen. John McCain made a similar mistake with Palin, assuming that the millions of women who supported Clinton would cross over to vote for a McCain-Palin ticket in order to make history. That was not the case; among Democratic women who said they supported Clinton, 82 percent voted for Obama, according to exit polling, demonstrating once more that party is more powerful than gender.

Prepare your family.

It used to be that female politicians worried excessively about the three H's -- hair, hemlines and husbands. Thanks to an increasingly equitable political landscape, where men's fashion is also under scrutiny (remember Al Gore's earth tones? Dick Cheney's unfortunate parka?) only one area is still a bigger problem for women: husbands. And families overall.

That was certainly the case for Hillary Clinton, who from the outset must have known that having a former two-term president for a husband was bound to bring extra scrutiny.

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