Notes from the Cracked Ceiling

Notes from the Cracked Ceiling

by Anne E. Kornblut

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In the presidential election of 2008 America seemed ready to elevate a woman to the presidency or vice presidency and—with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—was on the verge of actually doing so. Words like inevitable and phenomenon were in the air and the political and cultural stars seemed to be aligned.

Why didn’t it happen? What will it take


In the presidential election of 2008 America seemed ready to elevate a woman to the presidency or vice presidency and—with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—was on the verge of actually doing so. Words like inevitable and phenomenon were in the air and the political and cultural stars seemed to be aligned.

Why didn’t it happen? What will it take to make it happen soon?

In a probing analysis sure to ignite controversy, acclaimed White House correspondent Anne Kornblut argues that the optimists are blind to formidable obstacles that still stand in the way of any woman who aims for America’s highest political offices. And she makes clear exactly which strategies and common assumptions will need to change if a woman intends to break through the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” of all. Delving deep inside the Clinton and Palin campaigns, Kornblut reveals:

• the strategists’ mishandling of their candidates as women by failing to strike the right balance between femininity and toughness

• Clinton’s weathering of a series of stinging gender-based attacks, until accusations of “pimping out” her daughter, Chelsea, finally brought her to tears

• that Barack Obama was celebrated for his “historic”win in Iowa, even though it was not the first time an African American had won a caucus, but few noticed when Clinton became the first woman to  win a primary in New Hampshire

• that Palin was chosen solely by men, none of whom had experience in running women for office

Drawing from exclusive interviews with prominent women in both parties, Kornblut pinpoints where politically ambitious American women have gone wrong and what it will take to put them on track to the ultimate prize: the presidency. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice asserts: “We crossed the bar on African Americans some time ago. I’m not quite sure we’ve crossed it on women.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remarks on the “suit of armor” women must don to survive the sexism and viciousness of politics. Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano confronts the false rumors that she is a lesbian and reveals what an invigorating “kick in the pants” it is to be in politics. And California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, compares politics to business: “It feels to me, thus far, as less of a meritocracy and more of a popularity contest. More of a little bit of an old boys’ club.”

Kornblut identifies the surprising realities of gender politics, such as the harsh treatment female candidates often receive from women voters, the gap between the United States and other countries when it comes to the electability of women, the “mommy penalty” that handicaps women candidates with young children, and the special appeal that women with law enforcement backgrounds have with voters.

Notes from the Cracked Ceiling reveals that the highly touted new era of gender-equal politics never got as far as was commonly perceived and is now in full retreat. It is essential reading for anyone who cares about politics and the limits for women that persist.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Connie Schultz
f Kornblut only offered a rehash of bad news, it would be hard to recommend her book…Fortunately, she shifts gears in the second half, using her considerable interviewing skills to show how more women might get elected. She skillfully coaxes candor from guarded women, including U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar and Claire McCaskill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano…Kornblut illustrates why more women should be covering politics, and why it matters that she is one of them. Too much of traditional political reporting still depicts women candidates as generic and as interchangeable as sensible shoes. Kornblut knows better, and the results of her reporting offer irrefutable proof.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Revisiting recent political campaigns led by women, Washington Post White House correspondent Kornblut measures the progress of female politicians and wonders whether, with women filling just 23 percent of statewide and 17 percent of Congressional offices, the political gender gap can ever be closed. Beginning with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Kornblut examines the consequences of candidates' choices amidst the conflicting demands of gender politics and personality politics: Clinton embraced toughness until it overshadowed her maternal appeal; she then exposed her vulnerability, famously crying on the campaign trail, only to be condemned for weakness and insincerity. Palin managed to balance strength and sensitivity, but her weak grasp of the current events proved the electorate's worst assumptions. Kornblut follows with other, more successful campaigns, including Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, one of the few businesswomen ever to run for office. Through research and original interviews, Kornblut recounts scandals, strategies, and skepticism on the trail, and also sources a number of female operatives. More historical context would have helped illustrate change (and its lack) in the electoral landscape, but Kornblut's dedicated fieldwork makes a strong microanalysis of the political moment.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Kornblut (White House reporter, Washington Post) offers her reflections on the 2008 presidential campaign and the apparent difficulty women have in overcoming both sexist attacks and the demands of family while seeking to achieve politically powerful positions. Kornblut observes that in some quarters—state legislatures, governorships—the number of women has declined in recent years and that the 2008 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin "unleashed virulent strains of sexism." She is even more dismayed to discover that younger women preferred Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton, experiencing no guilt about forsaking the woman candidate. However, Kornblut is incorrect in seeming to believe that feminists once supported all women candidates, apparently agreeing with the president of a women's college who averred, as quoted by Kornblut, that Palin "was everything feminism was supposed to represent." Kornblut oddly equates Palin's credentials with Hillary Clinton's and argues that both lost in part because of sexism in politics and in the media, but this neutrality fails to reflect reality. Kornblut concludes that women must project both strength and motherliness to succeed in politics. VERDICT Political junkies, whether they are lay readers or specialists, and especially women, may wish to consider.—Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC

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Meet the Author

ANNE E. KORNBLUT has been a political reporter in Washington since 1998—covering, from start to finish, the three most recent presidential campaigns. She worked for the    Boston Globe and the New York Times  before joining the Washington Post in 2007 where she is currently a White House reporter.

From the Hardcover edition.

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