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- Published on Amazon.com
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.