I’m just back from what turned out to be a fascinating symposium at the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. It was supposed to be a look at the influence that spouses have had on presidential campaigns, but not surprisingly, it turned into a far more up-to-date discussion of a First Lady who ran for President in her own right.
The audience was largely female, and many were convinced that one of the biggest obstacles that Clinton had to confront was sexist media coverage. Many had read and been struck by this column by Marie Cocco, and one of the panelists, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Connie Schultz, related her fears (which she has written about) as to what kind of message Clinton’s experience has sent to the younger generation of women. (Among the handful of men in the audience of this symposium about spouses was Schultz’s own husband, Senator Sherrod Brown.)
So I was struck this morning by Kate Zernike’s piece leading the New York Times Week in Review section, in which she takes a look at who might be the next woman to “see if the mantle fits.”
Zernike posits that Clinton’s historic campaign, rather than breaking down doors for women, could actually have the opposite effect:
But for many women, whether or not they support Mrs. Clinton, the long primary campaign has left them with a question: why would any woman run?
Many feel dispirited by what they see as bias against Mrs. Clinton in the media — the “Fatal Attraction” comparisons and locker-room chortling on television panels.
“Who would dare to run?” said Karen O’Connor, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. “The media is set up against you, and if you have the money problem to begin with, why would anyone put their families through this, why would anyone put themselves through this?”
For this reason, she said, she doesn’t expect a serious contender anytime soon. “I think it’s going to be generations.”
I’m not so pessimistic. I think it’s going to be far, far sooner than that.
Among the many things that Hillary Clinton has been up against, sexism was undeniably a big one. It came from every direction: the media, the blogosphere, her opponents and, well, everywhere. That Hillary Clinton nutcracker seems to be on sale in every airport I go through these days. But while the next woman to run for President is certain to encounter some of that, she presumably won’t start the race with pretty much everyone in the country having already decided whether they love her or hate her. And so, I do think that some of the sexist bile was aimed not at the idea of any woman running for President, but rather, the idea of this woman doing it.
Meanwhile, there are a number of highly popular women leaders out there who are compiling impressive executive experience and have records that show they are capable of working across party (and gender) lines. When our magazine rated America’s governors three years ago, it turned out that two of the five best were women: Janet Napolitano of Arizona, and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. As Zernike writes, there are also a number of women leaders in corporate America–Meg Whitman, for instance–who might look at politics for a next act.
Clinton’s experience has in fact been a sobering and precautionary one for the women who will follow her. But that only means they will be stronger and better candidates for having seen what she has gone through.