It is cracked – but not broken yet. That old political glass ceiling is still blocking women from reaching the very top of American political power. What is going wrong?
Despite the groundbreaking efforts of Hillary Clinton and, yes, Sarah Palin, 2008 was no game changer, after all. Are women simply not confident enough, not experienced enough, or not tough enough?
There are certainly role models around: Hillary herself, a hugely respected secretary of state who has topped the poll of America’s most admired woman for 10 years in a row; Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, predecessors in the role; and Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker of the house, who says the crucial thing is helping other women reach the same heights.
The numbers are better in the Democratic party, though there are women rising to prominence in the GOP: governors Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez, senators like Kelly Ayotte. But none is yet presidential material.
Ahead of the Republican convention in Tampa, several leading women have been offered keynote speeches, including Condi Rice, somewhat unrealistically touted as a potential running mate last month, after she gave a feisty speech to Romney supporters.
But Dr Rice has insisted repeatedly that she has no desire to plunge into the melee of a presidential campaign, and there seems little reason to doubt her authenticity.
So what has become of Hillary Clinton’s famous declaration – those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling? In her concession speech in 2008, she claimed: “From now on, it will be unremarkable to think that a woman can be president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.” Yet the prospect of a female candidate still seems distant, even now.
Anne Kornblut, author of Notes from the Cracked Ceiling and White House correspondent on the Washington Post, thinks at least part of the problem is that women are simply unsure how to get enough credibility to be taken seriously as a political contender, without compromising their authentic personality.
Hillary Clinton did not get the balance right in ’08: her advisers persuaded her not to give a single speech about gender, and she instead took to sporting trouser suits and talking tough about foreign policy. Not feminine enough, shrieked her detractors.
From now on, it will be unremarkable to think that a woman can be president of the United States. Hillary Clinton
And, Kornblut told Channel 4 News, women just don’t have the same networking advantage as men: something that is not just confined to politics.
“There is plenty of evidence that women aren’t recruited at same pace as men,” she said. The informal contacts on the golf course or the country club just do not work in same way for women. “In fact, women are recruited to run at around one third the rate of men. It’s not that they are not ambitious – they are just not seeing the same path ahead.”
Ironically, Korblut points out, when Hillary finally gave that great gender speech after losing the primary race, it was magnificent, compelling. The true Clinton. Even if that “18 million cracks” line was added by her (male) speechwriter Jim Kennedy.
Republican women could be forgiven for being constrained by the Palin effect: a politician untried and untested on the national scene, pilloried and ripped apart by the same media that built her up. It is enough to make anyone with a family or alternative career think twice about running. Why would Condoleezza Rice, say, swap the hallowed halls of academia for such potential opprobrium?
At least the role of an activist first lady has become a little easier – provided, that is, that certain boundaries are kept. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are both far more popular than their respective husbands. They lend a neccessary humanity to the presidential campaign. They rally key constituencies from their party base: not just women, but core supporters, right across the grass roots.
Confident women, on the stump, raising money, attracting support. Yet the spin doctors have dictated that both must be confined to a strictly apolitical “woman’s place”. But if not this time, then it could all be very different in 2016, if all the rumours about a possible Hillary Clinton run are anything more than wishful thinking.
And even though the 2012 presidential election is still months away, the opinion pollsters have already been canvassing views in the first-in-the-nation state of Iowa about the next one. At this stage, Hillary is the overwhelming favourite. Let the speculation begin.
Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News