Not a Woman in the Picture

02/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The photographs of the current, future and former living presidents at the White House earlier this week were remarkable for the fact that such a meeting has not occurred since 1981. And because, for the first time, an African-American president-elect is present. And because, once again, there isn't a woman anywhere in sight.

Yes, this is self-evident: we know no woman has ever been elected president in the United States. Or, really, ever come close. For all of Hillary Clinton's groundbreaking campaign, she was not even nominated. For all of the hand-wringing at the prospect of Sarah Palin being within a 72-year-old heartbeat of the presidency, she became the laughing stock of a ticket that went down to stinging defeat.

Under the last two administrations, women have made significant breakthroughs, gaining access to previously unattainable posts, such as Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Interior and Secretary of Transportation. However, even under Barack Obama, at least for now, some positions remain off-limits to women: Senate Majority Leader, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, and CIA Director, for instance. Is it a coincidence that in the world's largest economy, whose military expenditure accounts for half the global total, the most senior posts dealing with money and war are still reserved for men?

It is surely true that Clinton smashed one glass ceiling and Palin, in her own way, too. But those were hardly the last such hurdles on the way to the presidency. If even ostensibly progressive presidents such as Bill Clinton and Obama are skittish about putting women in charge of Defense, the CIA or the Treasury, what does that say about the political system's ability to imagine a woman running all three, as President? True, no African-American had filled any of those posts either, and that did not prevent Obama from rising to the presidency. But do we really want to wait around for the type of confluence of events that happened in 2008 to reoccur? And for a woman with Obama's near-outlandish political skills, and sense of timing to emerge?

That is, in fact, part of the challenge. Before Clinton, no woman had seriously run for the presidency, and no woman appears to be doing so now. The situation is most dire on the Republican side because it is assumed that Obama will run for the Democrats in 2012. Republican women in Congress or statehouses are a dispiritingly dwindling group, which explains the ludicrous Palin selection. Once John McCain (or his advisors) decided he needed a woman on the ticket, the choice really boiled down to a group of eight Republican women Senators or Governors. Of those, only two passed the non-negotiable GOP presidential litmus test of being pro-life, Palin and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who is older than McCain and so politically unskilled that she ended up losing her North Carolina reelection bid in a landslide. That left Palin, who may be trying to position herself for 2012, a testament to the Republican Party's slim pickings among women. Never say never, but there is a reason Dan Quayle, who actually made it to the vice presidency and is more articulate than Palin, has remained ensconced in a comfortable life of private "work."

Among Democrats, there is both more time and more talent, but besides Clinton, no elected woman has emerged as a high-profile national political leader. Ironically, such public standing is often bestowed on those who have previously run for president, and lost (think Joe Biden or Al Gore, for instance). Senators such as Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota took a visible role in Obama's campaign but, as so often, they were simply very effective surrogates for the male candidate. It is debatable if this positions them for a future run or dooms them to the supporting cast. There are others, of course, such as newly elected Sen. Kay Hagan (who blasted Dole out of the Senate), who could go the Obama route and leapfrog all those who have been patiently plodding their way to the top job.

Even Democratic women face redoubtable challenges: they make up less than a quarter of their party's members of Congress, and even fewer are Governors. Half the states have never elected a woman Senator, and half the states have never elected a woman Governor. The slow progress of women in American politics is best illustrated by the country's dismal 69th place ranking in the percentage of women in national legislatures. This standing has deteriorated in each of the last ten years as women have gained more power in predictable countries such as Sweden or the Netherlands, but also in Latin America, Africa and Asia. These gloomy statistics are a powerful reflection of the United States' plummeting civil rights leadership, Obama's election notwithstanding: the country is falling further behind others when it comes to a whole array of rights for women, gay people and other minorities. Dozens of countries from Vietnam to Angola and Argentina now elect more women than Americans do. Dozens of countries from South Africa to Belgium to Colombia offer more rights for gay people than America does. And of course, the poor, workers, children, religious minorities have all seen their rights eroded, both relatively and absolutely, in the United States in the past decade. That we can always point to a horrifying although dwindling number of countries where women are considered chattel (Saudi Arabia), gay people punished by death (Nigeria), and children enslaved (Cambodia) does not mean the United States is not also failing to progress fast enough in these respects.

Last year's Democratic presidential primary was briefly the stage of a debate over whether sexism or racism were bigger impediments to election. The question is artificial, meaningless and impossible to answer. Artificial because it benefited neither of the leading candidates, but it did help their competitors, as was evidenced when the Republican nominee tried to wedge the issue of sexism between Democratic women and their male nominee. Meaningless because racism and sexism are hardly mutually exclusive. And impossible to answer because the statistical and empirical data can be manipulated to provide whatever answer is required. Leaving that pointless discussion aside, the bottom line remains: women have been shut out of the presidency in the many decades since they became enfranchised.

Among the handful of women who are nonetheless hopeful for a shot at the presidency, even in the long run, Janet Napolitano should be near the top. She is breaking ground in Obama's cabinet by taking over the Department of Homeland Security, a fairly recent creation that has been the preserve of men. Napolitano is a former US Attorney and the current Governor of Arizona, where she has, by all accounts, done a formidable job. She could surely be presidential material at some point. That, however, would require her to break yet more ground, as a single woman. After all, as Laura Bush said of Condolleeza Rice: she isn't interested in being president "because she is single."