02/15/2013 09:08 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

The Daring Dozen: Women to Watch for 2016


We've been talking about our hopes for a woman president since... well, since as long as I can remember. And for much of that time -- as with any long-sought dream -- the fantasy never quite lived up to the reality.

For one thing, the political field has always been so crowded with men who had the opportunity to log in more experience, that female candidates have had a difficult time elbowing their way in -- a phenomenon that University of Texas political science professors Rebecca Deen and Victoria Farrar-Myers refer to as the Pipeline Theory: Women's efforts to seek office have become significant only in the past two to three decades, the professors explained to the university's newspaper, so "it's taken a while for them to funnel into the pipeline" in positions that would make them viable candidates.

All of that arguably changed in 2008, when Hillary Clinton came within arm's reach of the Democratic nomination for the presidency -- a near-win that may have actually been more successful for her had she not been pitted against a candidate who was also trying to break historical ground.

But even without a victory, Clinton's giant leap into the presidential sweepstakes seems to have confirmed a significant surge for female politicians across America. While women hold only 97 of the 535 seats in the combined Congress (or 18.1 percent), it's the trajectory that's important to look at: Just ten years ago, women's representation in Congress was a third of what it is now; and since then, their gains have been exponential, and in a near-vertical climb.

So why have other nations elected female leaders and America hasn't? Surprisingly, it could have something to do with our political system. As political commentator Cokie Roberts noted, women have captured the highest office largely in nations that have a parliamentary system. "You become the head of your party and your party gets elected," Roberts said, "and that's an easier vote [to win] than the very singular vote that we have for the president of the U.S."

With all eyes cast on 2016, is it a safe bet that Hillary Clinton has a lock on the Presidency, or at least her party's nomination? On one hand, as Arianna Huffington recently noted, "For an entire generation, Hillary has been the foremost example of the successful woman -- her work ethic, her ability, her drive, her willingness to burn the candle at both ends," and that bodes well for her White House aspirations. But think of all the other women politicians, in both parties, who have been so inspired by Hillary's example that they have begun to strategize their own paths to the Oval Office.

Could Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who in 2000 helped Hillary Clinton win the seat she now holds herself, surpass her predecessor in the race for the gold? Could Nikki Haley, the hard-charging Republican governor of South Carolina -- whose name was briefly floated as a possible Veep on the 2012 Romney ticket -- heed her party's call for a more tempered kind of politics and jump to the front of the pack? Or could the best prospect come from outside the Capitol or a State House -- like California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose vigorous fight on behalf of mortgage-strapped homeowners has made her an appealing contender in national politics?

The possibilities for a female candidate are, as they say, endless. At last.

We reviewed the long list of potential presidential aspirants -- women whose names have been mentioned more than a few times since the November election -- and whittled them down to the twelve we think might best have a fighting chance. Is it too early to say that these women have a real shot, and that a wholly different frontrunner may not emerge? Think Bill Clinton in '92. But ya' gotta start somewhere, right?

Take a look at our lineup and let us know what you think. And, as always, please weigh in with the names of those we didn't list. For women all across the country, this is one of those situations in which more is decidedly merrier.

The Daring Dozen: Women to Watch for 2016