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Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: What It Will Take for a Woman to Win [Paperback]

Anne E. Kornblut

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Book Description

March 1 2011
In the presidential election of 2008 America seemed ready to elevate a woman to the presidency or vice presidency and—with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—was on the verge of actually doing so. Words like inevitable and phenomenon were in the air and the political and cultural stars seemed to be aligned.

Why didn’t it happen? What will it take to make it happen soon?

In a probing analysis sure to ignite controversy, acclaimed White House correspondent Anne Kornblut argues that the optimists are blind to formidable obstacles that still stand in the way of any woman who aims for America’s highest political offices. And she makes clear exactly which strategies and common assumptions will need to change if a woman intends to break through the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” of all. Delving deep inside the Clinton and Palin campaigns, Kornblut reveals:

• the strategists’ mishandling of their candidates as women by failing to strike the right balance between femininity and toughness

• Clinton’s weathering of a series of stinging gender-based attacks, until accusations of “pimping out” her daughter, Chelsea, finally brought her to tears

• that Barack Obama was celebrated for his “historic”win in Iowa, even though it was not the first time an African American had won a caucus, but few noticed when Clinton became the first woman to  win a primary in New Hampshire

• that Palin was chosen solely by men, none of whom had experience in running women for office

Drawing from exclusive interviews with prominent women in both parties, Kornblut pinpoints where politically ambitious American women have gone wrong and what it will take to put them on track to the ultimate prize: the presidency. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice asserts: “We crossed the bar on African Americans some time ago. I’m not quite sure we’ve crossed it on women.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarks on the “suit of armor” women must don to survive the sexism and viciousness of politics. Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano confronts the false rumors that she is a lesbian and reveals what an invigorating “kick in the pants” it is to be in politics. And California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, compares politics to business: “It feels to me, thus far, as less of a meritocracy and more of a popularity contest. More of a little bit of an old boys’ club.”

Kornblut identifies the surprising realities of gender politics, such as the harsh treatment female candidates often receive from women voters, the gap between the United States and other countries when it comes to the electability of women, the “mommy penalty” that handicaps women candidates with young children, and the special appeal that women with law enforcement backgrounds have with voters.

Notes from the Cracked Ceiling reveals that the highly touted new era of gender-equal politics never got as far as was commonly perceived and is now in full retreat. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about politics and the limits for women that persist.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (March 1 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307464261
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307464262
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.5 x 1.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 204 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #452,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Unsettling...Full of astonishing anecdotes...This book is an eye-opener." —People
"[Kornblut] skillfully coaxes candor from guarded women...Gets to the heart of why women run and how they win...Illustrates why more women should be covering politics, and why it matters that she is one of them." —Washington Post
"Compelling...convincing and nuanced." —Associated Press
“This lively, perceptive discussion of what it will take for women to truly crack the glass ceiling in politics is rich in anecdote, common sense, analysis, and superb old-fashioned reporting.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of Team of Rivals
 “In Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, Anne Kornblut has cracked the code, brilliantly reporting the struggles women face as candidates, including never before known facts about celebrated and controversial figures like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin. Kornblut brings her trademark analytical skill to paint a brilliant and compelling portrait of where women have been in politics, and how far they still must travel to succeed. This book will be a revelation to all women—and men—interested in politics and in great storytelling.” —Andrea Mitchell, NBC Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent
 “That Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were treated differently by some in the media and the public because of their gender is indisputable. Anne Kornblut looks at their campaigns, as well as other ones with happier endings, to probe just what a politician’s gender means in this “enlightened” day and age. If my daughter is to ever live in a world where she will be judged professionally by the content of her character, not the shape of her skin, it will be in part because of the scholarship, reporting, and insight of reporters like Kornblut.” —Jake Tapper, ABC News Senior White House Correspondent
“Anne Kornblut offers a careful, compelling, provocative analysis of the role gender continues to play in U.S. campaigns and elections.  She synthesizes academic literature, interviews with scholars, pollsters, strategists, and pundits, and her own experiences on the campaign trail into a first-rate account of how far women have come and how far women still must go to break through the political glass ceiling.  This is a must read for everyone who cares about women, elections, and representation.” —Jennifer L. Lawless, Ph.D., Director, Women & Politics Institute at American University and author of It Takes A Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office

About the Author

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Non-Partisan Assessment of Sexism in Politics Feb. 9 2010
By E. K. Johnson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an impressive work for two important reasons: first, my compliments to Kornblut for her non-partisan assessment of the problem of sexism in politics, and second, despite her being a thirty something, an age where most young women abjure feminism and believe sexism is a thing of the past, Kornblut brings to light that the double standard for women is alive and well in Washington, aided and abetted by the media and political consultants who don't understand how to showcase women candidates.

Ironically, in this world turned upside down, the only "woman" candidate to succeed in the 2008 presidential election was Barack Obama. According to Kornblut's claim, while Clinton and Palin had to downplay their femininity to appear strong and "ready on the first day," Obama was praised for showing his feminine side, being sensitive, relaying personal family stories of single mothers, absent fathers, breast cancer, and love for his grandmother, wife, and children.

While not personally a fan of Palin, I sympathize with her now for being thrust into an impossible position by operatives unable to understand both a woman candidate or women voters, setting her up for failure by misreading her strengths and weaknesses, and then abandoning her when things turned sour. (I now think Palin's "going rogue" might have been the most sensible decision she has ever made.)

The book is very well researched and her analysis of "what it will take for a woman to win" is thoughtful and should be number 1 on the reading list for any woman thinking of finally breaking the ultimate glass ceiling.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good primer on women in politics, but should have gone further March 27 2010
By Jay P - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Anne E. Kornblut, a White House reporter for the Washington Post, is impatient to see a woman in the White House -- and not another First Lady, either. Her book, Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win, is easy (yet purposeful) reading. But lest her novelistic tone deceive you, let it be clear that her views on the necessity of recruiting more female political candidates are never in question. Having personally followed the two aforementioned presidential hopefuls during their campaigns, Kornblut has seen firsthand the unique abuse lavished upon female candidates. In her introduction, she argues that Clinton and Palin "may not have lost because they were women...but their sex played an outsize role in the year's events." She then closes that section with the observation that "the glass ceiling may be cracked...but it is far from broken."

What, then, is keeping women from breaking through that glass? History is an obvious culprit, but Kornblut is disinclined to let the present off the hook so easily. More specifically, she faults the candidates and their large teams of handlers, who often waged behind-the-scenes battles over their candidates' public self-portrayal. Should Hillary exude toughness, or feminine restraint? How about a combination of the two? Would it help if her daughter, Chelsea, campaigned along with her? In one potent example of poor decision-making, Kornblut details the various Christmas commercials the presidential candidates aired in December 2007. While Obama focused on his home and family, Clinton devoted her airtime to wrapping Christmas presents with labels such as "universal health care" and "bring troops home." "It was hard," Kornblut wryly notes, "to quit being tough."

Of course, Hillary Clinton eventually lost the Democratic nomination, but not without some help from the national media. Was their constant bombardment indicative of sexism, or simply a reaction to the Clinton camp's preexisting ambivalence towards the press corps? Kornblut seems to think there is some of both, but the mass public's embrace of some of the more vicious ad hominem attacks on Clinton lend credence to allegations that it was more the former than the latter.

Clinton's demise was soon overshadowed by the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. Kornblut does an admirable job retracing Palin's time on the campaign trail, especially in noting how quickly the high praise was overtaken by vitriolic condemnation. And while it is true that public commentary on Palin soon reflected sexist undertones, Kornblut at times seems unable to completely separate these attacks from the legitimate criticisms, most prominent of which was Palin's lack of a grasp on even basic domestic and foreign policy issues and her disastrous performances in network interviews. That Palin became a favorite target of the Democratic base was undeniable, but that this was largely due to her gender is much less apparent.

Furthermore, Kornblut missed a golden opportunity to delve deeper into one of the more fascinating subplots of Palin's candidacy -- namely, that of her role within the historical feminist movement. Traditionally, feminists were assumed to adhere to more liberal ideology, which in its most common incarnation usually included a pro-choice stance and a general alignment with the Democratic Party. So when Palin, a mother of five with strong pro-life views, became the vice presidential nominee, it seemed almost as if the modern feminist movement had reached a fork in the road. Kornblut had noted earlier how many women in their twenties had voted for Obama over Clinton in the Democratic primaries, confident in their belief that voting based on competence and ideology over gender politics epitomized a more authentic form of gender equality. With Palin, older models of feminism were once again being strained: was Palin's candidacy, given her conservative views (especially on abortion), a betrayal of feminist ideals, or was it reflective of a new wave of female ascendancy representing all points on the political spectrum?

Kornblut gives this tension a brief nod when she notes that "if Clinton had epitomized the feminist movement's dream, Palin was in many ways its worst nightmare." Entire volumes could be written on this subject, and in that Kornblut's book was ostensibly intended to ask these and similar questions, the fact that she devoted just several pages to Palin's role within feminism was disappointing. Similarly glaring in its absence was any discussion of female minority voters who faced the difficult and historic choice between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries. The question of which identity holds strongest -- race or gender -- was ignored in Kornblut's analysis, a surprising omission in an election for which identity took center stage.

Towards the end of the book, Kornblut contrasts the American political experience for women with that of other countries. The comparison is not flattering to the United States. For Kornblut, however, the upside to the disappointment of two women narrowly losing out in the 2008 elections is that countless lessons can be taken from their failures -- shortcomings that were as much the fault of their advisers, the media, and an unpredictable electorate as they were of the candidates themselves. With shrewd recruitment and well-planned campaigns, women will continue to challenge the gender status quo in politics. It remains to be seen when this will happen, but the shattering of the glass ceiling is long overdue.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book determined not to rock the boat April 20 2010
By L Goodman-Malamuth - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is a lot to like about Anne E. Kornblut's first book--she excels in framing quotes--but my essential dissatisfaction with it starts with the title. For one thing, everyone Kornblut interviews appears to agree that party allegiance matters more to voters than the candidate's gender. This undercuts the "what it will take for a woman to win" premise that must have been part of the book proposal. One does not get a strong opinion while reading "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling" whether it particularly matters whether women win elections; that sense of urgency is strangely absent from Kornblut's prose. The title also suggests that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are comparable political figures. They aren't, of course, and to suggest that "a woman"--any woman--might be the preferable candidate blurs the enormous gap both between the politics and the educational/professional backgrounds of Clinton and Palin. Though both were headliners in the 2008 Presidential election, Hillary slogged through the Presidential primaries nationwide before conceding defeat and vowing to support Barack Obama. Sarah Palin was brought into the campaign (officially) as candidate for Vice President just nine weeks before Election Day. While conceding that the spouses of female candidates tend to undergo greater scrutiny than male candidates' wives, Kornblut says almost nothing about the controversial Todd Palin. Kornblut doesn't mention Todd Palin's membership in the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, for example, or his role as a virtual co-governor to his wife, as detailed both in the daily press and by e-mails released by MSNBC months ago.

Although Kornblut readily concedes that Sarah Palin was inadequately vetted by the McCain camp, she appears to accept as smoking gospel any information coming from them, quoting extensively from campaign aide Nicolle Wallace. Faced with the unpleasant task of answering questions about whether Trig Palin is Sarah's son or her grandson, the McCain campaign announced that Bristol Palin was "five months pregnant," therefore making it technically impossible for the younger Palin woman to have given birth to Trig. Perhaps. If Trig WAS born in April 2008, rather than earlier. But of course, no birth certificate ever has been produced.

Perhaps the most troubling error in this book involves Elaine Lafferty, former editor of Ms. magazine. Formerly a supporter of Hillary Clinton, Lafferty is described as "finding herself a volunteer in the McCain campaign." Lafferty was much more than a volunteer, "writing memos," as she explains disingenuously. Though not the only former Clinton supporter to accept cash to work for the McCain/Palin ticket, she may be the most prominent. Lafferty received $50,000 from the McCain/Palin campaign in September and October 2008, and later received thousands more from SarahPAC, while penning articles highly flattering to Palin (example: "Sarah Palin's a Brainiac") in The Daily Beast. Did Kornblut know that Lafferty was a paid operative, rather than a volunteer? She thanks Lafferty in the acknowledgments. It would be nice to know if Kornblut read the Federal Election Commission filings, or why she didn't ask such questions of her interviewees.

My bottom line on this book is that if you already follow politics, this book isn't likely to say much you need to read again.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Perspective on Modern Politics May 3 2010
By Will R. McAuliffe - Published on
A combination of interviews, anecdotes, and analysis, "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling" uses the benefit of hindsight and Anne Kornblut's access to reveal the challenges unique to women in today's political world. While Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin are all different in their politics and personal history, Kornblut effectively highlights their shared experience of being women with ambition in her debut work. All aspects of their (and several other female politicians') campaigns and careers are examined through the lenses of the media, the public, their colleagues, and their own words.

Through this multi-faceted look at several prominent women, some successful in their campaigns and some not, a clear trend emerges: women in politics are judged differently and more harshly than their male counterparts. Acute attention is paid to looks, tone, and adherence to traditional gender roles forcing women with ambition in politics to constantly strike a difficult balance between beauty and humility, warmth and strength, caring (grand)mother and independent woman.

The post-mortems and analyses from the 2008 campaign season are abundant on bookshelves yet this work remains unique in its focus. Lovers of politics, sociology, and/or current events would be remiss not to place "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling" on their own shelf.
4.0 out of 5 stars good read April 1 2014
By kathyxian - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Interesting insights though not enough analysis in race and racial dynamics affecting politics and elections. I would recommend it for beginners

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