Cruel reflections from the White House's glass ceiling

In a roundtable discussion with the Post's Anne Kornblut, author of 'Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and what it will take for a woman to win, syndicated newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker discusses her reaction to the attacks on then-presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton
By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ask yourself: Who is likely to be the first female president of the United States?

Anyone? Anyone?

Despite our assumption that a female president is inevitable, and likely soonish, it's surprisingly difficult to come up with a name.

Briefly, Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious answer. For a flicker, Sarah Palin was an entertaining notion -- and remains so among a certain contingent of stubborn optimists. Other names surface now and then -- Meg Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, Janet Napolitano, to name a few.

But who, really, is likely to shatter the White House ceiling? And does America, for all our talk of equality, really want a woman in the highest office?

Washington Post writer Anne Kornblut explores those questions in her excellent new book, "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win." As a reporter on the presidential campaign trail, Kornblut had a front-row seat to history, watching two women rise and fall from the top tickets -- one a presidential and the other a vice presidential candidate.

It is easy to argue that Clinton and Palin are so unique, each in her own way, that inferences about gender in politics can't be drawn. Clinton's role as former first lady and wife of Bill, and all the attendant baggage (not to mention the phenomenon of Barack Obama), inarguably played a bigger role than gender in her defeat. Palin, for all her charm and accomplishments, was not a competent candidate. With her winking and flirting, she made herself unserious to many who otherwise would have supported a woman for vice president. Happily.

Even so, it is impossible to argue that these two women were not treated unfairly, often cruelly, by both the media and the public -- and even by their own campaigns. What gets leveled at women is of a different order than what men endure -- and no woman in the public arena would insist otherwise.

I make that assertion as a not-especially sensitive fleur. Having lived most of my life in the testosterone-rich environment of men and boys, I'm fairly ism-tolerant. That is, every unflattering comment about a women isn't necessarily "sexist" in my playbook. But lately, for a variety of reasons, the usual inhibitors that have kept overt hostility confined to private spaces have been disabled. In politics, it's open season, as Kornblut meticulously documents.

Thus, we have such clever items as the Hillary Clinton nutcracker and public references to her as a "bitch." Rush Limbaugh asked whether Americans "want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis."

And we have the "slutty flight attendant" look of Sarah Palin, compliments of David Letterman, who also suggested the rape of one of her daughters. The Internet roiled with sexual jokes and pornified images of Palin, amid allegations that her newborn was not her own.

Women are never more complicated than in public life, but so it has always been. Kornblut's observations, though tied to recent events, fit the framework offered 15 years ago by Kathleen Hall Jamieson in her book "Beyond the Double Bind." Essentially, a double bind is a rhetorical construct that posits two, and only two, alternatives -- either of which serves to disempower.

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