Why has the U.S. never elected a female president? In her new book, Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win, Anne Kornblut, a Washington Post correspondent to the White House, examines this question.
Here we talk with Kornblut about what it will take for a woman to break "the glass ceiling."
If you were to design the most "electable" female presidential candidate, what would she look like?
I’ve played this game with myself for a long time. She is completely impossible. She would have served in the military and stayed home and raised her children full-time. She’d be married to someone with money, and she’d have some business experience. There’s just no way she could exist. There are too many demands on this candidate.
But joking aside – she’d be authentic, which would need to be true of a male or female presidential candidate. She’d cross the credential threshold – she’d have demonstrated that she’s qualified, and she’d be a communicator. Those are the areas where women have sometimes struggled.
Why have women struggled in these areas?
Men have to be authentic too, but women tend to be criticized more when they don’t seem authentic – look at Hillary Clinton.
The credentials hurdle is the biggest. Women’s credentials are not often taken at face value, where with men, being senator or governor of a state for one term is enough.
Are “polarizing” women more likely to get support and be elected?
We never want a polarizing candidate. I think the fact that Clinton was polarizing hurt her because people saw it as making her hard to elect. But what polarizing does mean is that you get the support of your base. It can work for or against women. Like it or not, the most prominent elected women -- Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi -- are all polarizing. It’s a question of the chicken or the egg.
Do you think the U.S. will see a female president in the near future?
I remain a skeptic. In theory, everybody is ready to vote for a woman for president. And certainly Clinton got 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. But when it comes to actual candidates and actually electing women, there is a long road ahead. Palin is the only woman we’re talking about for 2012. For the 2016 elections, yes, there are women positioning themselves to run -- Janet Napolitano [the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security & former Governor of Arizona] and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Then there are also women who still need to run their own races – like Meg Whitman – but she still has a long way to go to win the California governorship.
When you asked people in 2006 “Would there be a woman president,” the answer was yes, and they pointed to Hillary Clinton. Now, the answer is not so clear.
Are women voters harder on female candidates?
They are definitely hard. You can’t go into an election with the presumption that women will vote for a woman. They put party before gender. They also want to be able to relate to the woman candidate. If the candidate has kids, they ask, how can she also take on the presidency? They look at how the woman is dressed, and may say, you look too perfect; it doesn’t look right.
Are women still caught in the catch-22 of, how do you come across as strong, smart and tough without being labeled heartless and inhuman?
There’s no question. It’s that bind. It’s certainly still there when you’re talking about running for commander in chief. The toughness question will be there – Is she tough enough? And if she’s perceived as too tough, she gets the b word. It’s a very difficult balancing act. You can’t be sure when you’ll cross the line into too tough. She has to demonstrate that she could deal with a terrorist threat, with Iran, etc. – but if she’s perceived as too much that way, what kind of woman is she? Hillary Clinton certainly faced this issue, although she struck a more balanced act at the end.
What can we do to pave the way for a female president?
Raise awareness and engagement. Awareness is the key – being aware of how women face running for office. In terms of engagement -- the number of women who run is still low. The bigger the numbers, the less there will be at stake each time a woman runs.
Anne E. Kornblut has been a political reporter in Washington since 1998, covering, from start to finish, the three most recent presidential campaigns. She worked for the Boston Globe and the New York Times before joining the Washington Post in 2007 where she is currently a White House reporter.