"Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win" (Crown, 288 pages, $25), by Anne E. Kornblut: If you thought the 2008 election was a triumph in the cause of getting a woman closer to the White House, political reporter Anne E. Kornblut begs to differ.
In her retrospective "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win," Kornblut argues that Clinton and Palin's candidacies revived old stereotypes, divided the women's movement and set back the cause of equality in politics.
Kornblut, who covers the White House for The Washington Post, is careful not to say that Clinton and Palin lost because they were women, but she makes a compelling case that gender played an outsize role in their campaigns – to their detriment.
Strategists refer to the "hair, hemlines, and husbands" phenomenon in explaining the disproportionate attention that appearances and spouses garner when a candidate happens to be a woman. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's campaign, for example, figured out that they could lessen the disadvantage of her beauty by using black-and-white photographs. Other female candidates have sought to bolster their "toughness" credentials – something they generally have to prove, unlike male candidates – by working as prosecutors or signing onto armed services bills.
One of the most striking sections of the book lists numerous examples of double standards in the treatment of male and female politicians. Kornblut recalls the persistent questions about the maternity of Sarah Palin's youngest child, a controversy that was unfounded, while rumors of John Edwards' love child were for the most part left alone, even though they turned out to be true.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was confirmed despite his tax problems, while the smaller tax problems of would-be performance czar Nancy Killefer doomed her nomination.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was widely criticized for her assertion that she would draw on her experience as a Latina, although it was barely noted when Justice Samuel Alito in his confirmation hearings a few years earlier had promised to draw on his Italian background.
When Palin quit as Alaska governor, commentators offered explanations that included attention deficit disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Neither Bob Dole, Trent Lott nor Newt Gingrich was diagnosed with mental illnesses when they stepped down from their political positions, Kornblut notes.
Kornblut's explanation of the challenges facing female candidates brings to mind a famous analogy in feminist philosophy: If you look at an individual wire of a birdcage, you won't be able to understand why the bird doesn't just fly around it, but taken all together, you can see that the wires are confining.
A humorous retort to all this comes from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Kornblut asked her about the doubts women have about whether they're qualified to lead. After rolling her eyes, Napolitano said: "As opposed to, you know, what? Look at these yahoo guys that have been in public office for two hundred years. You think we cannot do as well as they do? I mean, give me a break."
While Kornblut is convincing and nuanced in demonstrating how the cards are stacked against women in politics, her pessimistic thesis in the opening of the book appears to lose steam in a later chapter when she lists promising women who have figured out how to avoid some of the common pitfalls facing female candidates.
Kornblut has a tendency to be a tad repetitive and she offers little new information about the 2008 campaign, but this book's value lies in its detailed examination of the current state of women in politics.