Why Americans have never elected a woman president, how we changed to make it possible, and why it matters.
From Hollywood to the halls of Congress, a lively conversation about women’s leadership, equal pay, and family-work balance is underway. On the cusp of a historic breakthroughthe potential election of America’s first woman presidentNancy L. Cohen takes us inside the world of America’s women political leaders. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with women governors and senators from both parties, experts, political operatives, and a diverse array of voters, Breakthrough paints an intimate portrait of the savvy women who’ve built an alternative to the old boys club and are rewriting the playbook for how women succeed in politics. In this accessible and often surprising story, Cohen introduces us to the inspiring women behind the women who have brought us to this threshold, and to a dynamic group of young leaders who are redefining how we think about leadership, feminism, and men’s essential role in achieving gender equality. Breakthrough takes on our cultural assumptions to show that the barriers that once blocked a woman’s ascent to the presidency have fallen, even more than we realize.
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About the Author
Nancy L. Cohen is an author, historian, and leading national expert on women and politics. Cohen holds a PhD in history from Columbia University, and is the author of three books on American politics, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and The Reconstruction of American Liberalism. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere, and she has been a featured guest on NPR, MSNBC, CSPAN, and many other national and international broadcasts. Currently she is a commissioner on the Los Angeles County Commission for Women.
Read an Excerpt
"Don't think of this as some League of Women Voters type of thing to do. It's brutal. It's tough. You are going for power. It's never been just given away. As long as you understand that and are ready to take a punch square in the face, then you'll love it."
— Nancy Pelosi Speaker, U.S. House of Representatives
"There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," America's first woman secretary of state Madeleine Albright has famously said, only partly in jest.
In today's political world, behind every great woman are women. There are women who can win the presidency in the world we actually live in, and behind them stand hard-nosed, pragmatic women leaders who have forged the relationships and built the institutions to make it happen.
The global pioneers in women's political leadership — the best-known "firsts" like British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir — won power by playing a man's game in a man's world. Had America elected a woman president way back in the 20th century, it is very possible she would have followed Thatcher's path. But that narrow way is now only one of many possible alternatives. After all, scores of women have by this point been elected to the top post in their nations.
When Americans finally elect a woman president, it will be thanks to the women — and a few good men — who piece by piece built an alternative to the old boys' club and rewrote the playbook for how women play the political game.
Thirty years ago, exactly one woman served in the 100-member United States Senate. In 2016, women made up one out of every five U.S. senators. Today, when gridlock and dysfunction seem to be the default state of our federal government, you often hear praise lavished on the women senators for working across party lines to get things done for the greater good of the nation. The woman at the hub of this three-decades-long transformation in women's presence and influence in high office is Maryland Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski.
I met Mikulski in her office in the Hart Senate Office Building. In a large conference room hung a framed glass case of the signed Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, with handwritten notes from her Senate colleagues, and the pen with which President Barack Obama signed the bill into law. Mikulski was the sponsor of the landmark equal pay for women law and it is one of her proudest achievements. After she found herself in possession of the pen, curators at the National Archives called to make sure she was taking good care of it — it is the first pen used by America's first African American president to sign his first bill into law. Hanging next to the Lilly Ledbetter case is an image of Supernova Mikulski, 7 billion light years from earth, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Discovered in 2012, NASA scientists had named it in honor of Mikulski for her success in sparing the Hubble from Congress's budget axe.
Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the Senate, is venerated as the dean of the Senate women. It is an unlikely position for a Polish Catholic grocer's daughter, who started her career as a social worker and community organizer. Mikulski made her first mark politically in 1968 as an activist fighting a sixteen-lane highway slated to cut smack through the middle of her Baltimore neighborhood. One day at a rally she had climbed on top of a table — she is only four feet eleven — and in front of news cameras shouted, "The British couldn't take Fells Point, the termites couldn't take Fells Point, and, goddamn, the State Roads Commission can't take Fells Point." A few years later, she won election to the city council, then a few years after that, to the U.S. House, where she served five terms before winning a tough race to become the first Democratic woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right. Mikulski grew up across the street from her father's small grocery store, and in her thirty years in the Senate, she continued to make her home in her childhood neighborhood, just a forty-one-mile drive from her office. When anyone joins Mikulski's staff in DC, they're driven up to Baltimore and given the "roots tour," with visits to Mikulski's dad's grocery, her old high school, and her first home. Roughly four out of five U.S. senators are millionaires, a few more than 100 times over. Mikulski is not one of them.
In the winter of 1987, a few weeks after Mikulski took her Senate seat, a Republican colleague exploited the novelty of her presence for a cheap punch line. "I'm blessed with the talent of whipping the electorate to a frenzy," he said. "Women often throw their panties at me when I speak. It happened again just yesterday. I just don't know what got into Senator Mikulski."
Mikulski was not amused by New Mexico Republican senator Pete Domenici's boasts. "I think it's outrageous and I find it insulting. I have other responses, but that's the one for public dissemination," Mikulski said, after a reporter relayed the incident to her the next day. She of course did not know about the remark, because Domenici had delivered it at the all-male Alfalfa Club annual banquet, and unlike all the men in the Senate and on the Supreme Court, she had not been invited.
But what was she to do? After victory in a hard-fought primary and general election, was she going to launch her Senate career by sidelining herself in a purely symbolic fight? So behind the scenes she accepted Domenici's apology, and then she helped draft his public apology. "She understands it's still an all-boys club, and she's going to be a player," Domenici said. "She already is."
More important, Mikulski knew where the levers of power were located and she immediately maneuvered to win appointment to the powerful Appropriations Committee, the place where key budgeting decisions were made. "There are plenty of reasons for taking on the establishment in Washington, but what would she have changed? If she had been a bomb-thrower in Washington, her appointment to the Appropriations Committee would not have happened," Benjamin Cardin, who would win Maryland's other U.S. Senate seat in 2006, said at the time. "She changed the U.S. Senate — not by taking it on, but by working her way into it."
But Mikulski also had to find her way into the culture of the Senate. Run a Lexis search on Mikulski in the 1980s and you'll get a sense of what she faced. "The Abrasive Lady from Baltimore Polishes Her Act," in the Washington Post, is typical. So she signed up for the senators' fishing trip to Alaska. "It was a pretty rough-and-tumble bunch of old senators. We said, 'What in the devil are we going to do with her on the trip?'" one senator told a reporter. "But she donned hip waders that went over her head and caught her fair share of fish. By the end of the trip, everybody was toasting her."
While the fishing trip seems to have softened her colleagues' hearts, Mikulski may have thought that was no way to integrate a new member into the most august legislative body in the world. She needed reinforcements to put an end to the boys-will-be-boys culture of the United States Senate. (To take one example, according to glass ceiling–breaking veteran reporter and broadcaster Andrea Mitchell, back in the '80s and early '90s, it wasn't safe to let your female interns get on the elevator with certain senators notorious for their wandering hands.)
So Mikulski urged California congresswoman Barbara Boxer to give up her safe House seat for a long-shot run for the Senate in 1992. That year Mikulski found herself in the company of the largest class of freshmen women senators ever in American history, when Democrats Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, and Carol Moseley Braun won seats in the historic Year of the Woman. In June of the next year, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison won a special election in Texas and joined them. With the lone senator who predated Mikulski, Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum, there were now seven women.
The Senate's old boys' club had been 200 years in the making, replenished generation by generation via a pipeline running through men's fraternities, men's colleges, and secret societies like the Freemasons (fourteen presidents) and Yale's Skull and Bones (at least three presidents). Mikulski would have to make do with a crash course on Senate procedure and customs for her new colleagues. Boxer recalled in a 2015 op ed, "Just days after I won that first Senate race, Mikulski sent all the new Senate women a guidebook she wrote, 'Getting Started in the Senate,' and invited us to her office for lessons on Senate procedure, committee assignments, and setting up our offices." Patty Murray attested at the time, "She told us how to get a bill through, how to make the process work. Believe me, nobody else gave us that kind of help."
It was a contentious time in Washington. Democratic president Bill Clinton had taken office that January, putting an end to the Reagan Revolution and twelve years of Republican control of the White House. Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and Republicans in Congress had assumed a "just say no" stance toward every initiative Clinton put forward. The political oxygen was being consumed by Clinton's health care reform bill, led by First Lady Hillary Clinton. Both parties were digging in.
But not the women. Mikulski recalled, "Just when we had more women coming to the Senate, including more Republican women, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison reached out to me on a bill. Quite frankly, both of our staffs encouraged us not to work with the other. I heard, 'Oh she's a Republican, why do you want to help her?' And Kay heard — Senator Hutchison heard, 'Why do you want to work with Barb Mikulski? She's a Democrat.'"
But Mikulski disregarded her staff's advice. Hutchison's idea appealed to her, because it was aimed at eliminating a tax provision that patently discriminated against women. In the law governing individual retirement accounts (IRAs), individuals could make contributions from present earnings and defer taxes to save for retirement. But homemakers — mostly women, of course — were limited in what they could put into their accounts.
When I asked Hutchison about her bill, she told me that the idea for it came out of her own experience taking time out of the workforce. "I started an IRA when I was single, and then several years later I got married. I was going to contribute to my IRA and I was told I could contribute only $500 instead of $2,500 — the difference was substantial," Hutchison said. "And I said, 'Wait a minute. This is terrible.' Women are the ones that may be out of the workforce for ten years or so to raise their children, and then they go back and they've missed that compound interest. It was so wrong. So I said if I ever can do something about this, I will."
But in 1993 when Hutchison joined the Senate, she was the most junior member of the minority party. There was little chance any bill of hers would go anywhere. Hutchison was already an experienced lawmaker — at age twenty-nine in 1972, she had become the first woman ever elected to the Texas state legislature — so she knew she had to seek out more powerful partners. She reached out to Mikulski. "I went to her and I said, 'Barbara, I want you to carry this, and I'll be your cosponsor,'" she recalled. "Democrats were in control of both the House and Senate, and I said, 'I really want to pass it. So I know it's going to be better if your name is on the front.' She said to me, 'Absolutely not. I wouldn't hear of it! This is your bill and I'm going to be your cosponsor.' That's the kind of person she is. I just almost hugged her. Well — I did hug her," she laughed. "Barbara Mikulski is just the most wonderful person and she's a great legislator."
Mikulski liked the idea. "I agreed with Kay. I thought the policy initiative was just terrific, because it went to economic empowerment, particularly for the homemaker who paid a mom penalty. I found we really could work together," Mikulski said. Hutchison and Mikulski introduced the bill in February 1994, and it passed a few years later.
But there was another significant result from their work, one that arguably has had a more far-reaching impact. "While we were working on the initiative, we went out to dinner together just to hash things over," Mikulski told me. "We had such a good time. We laughed and enjoyed each other, and we said, 'This is so great. Why don't we invite the other women?'"
Take just about any account of America's women senators, and you are bound to read about the private bipartisan dinners that have taken place for the past twenty years, and the role they've played in forging the women into a formidable, decisive force in Congress. When I asked Mikulski about the dinners' origins, she told me the story of her work on the IRA bill with Hutchison and their friendship, and then said, "I started it because of the prickly nature of politics that had been initiated in the House by Newt Gingrich, and brought to the Senate by others of that generation. They were creating a toxic environment. We felt that there should be a zone of civility, and why shouldn't it start with us? We had different views on everything from the budget to choice, but we would be a force and we would look at where we could work together. One of the things that we felt would be our biggest contribution is this zone of civility. That when we duked it out, when the day was over, the day would be over."
In other words, the conditions were ripe for new ways of doing business. Partisan rancor was extinguishing the gentlemanly customs of the institution, and those most adept at the old ways were not necessarily going to be the most nimble players in the new environment. Enter the outsiders.
"We had three rules, no staff, no memos, no leaks. That has now been established for over twenty years," Mikulski said. For many of those years the Senate women met monthly. Occasionally they would include the women Supreme Court justices — Hutchison recalled that one time Ruth Bader Ginsburg's husband cooked for them. "And of course," Mikulski continued, "this is where some of our women's health initiatives have come from — our whole effort on mammogram standards, just a list of things."
The Senate women themselves have become more ideologically polarized, for instance with the elections of Elizabeth Warren on the left and Joni Ernst on the right. Regardless, Mikulski said, "Everybody still looks forward to the dinners. As they say, it's one of the few places where you can be bipartisan, relax, and be yourself. We talk about the same topics that women everywhere talk about. It's not like we all bring memos and CBO scoring, et cetera, and act like we're on Hannity versus Maddow."
Mikulski acknowledged there are conflicts between Democrats and Republicans over policy at times. "When we were working on Lilly Ledbetter, I had a bill, and my good friend Kay had a different means for achieving pay equity. She offered nine amendments. We debated. We duked it out. There we were and, at the end of the day, we came up with great bipartisan legislation that passed," she said. "And we had a glass of wine and another crab cake at the Monocle."
All the Republican women in the Senate voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. They were the only Republicans to do so.
Necessity is the mother of invention. To be sure, the bipartisan dinners grew organically out of the friendship Mikulski and Hutchison developed while working together on a pro-woman law. And yet in one fell swoop, the dinners countered the old problem of the clubby old boys and the new problem of hyperpartisanship.
As partisan polarization has paralyzed the federal government in recent years, in case after case, women senators have broken the deadlock between the parties and passed major legislation. Maine Republican senator Susan Collins crafted the plan and organized the coalition of senators that ultimately ended the 2013 federal government shutdown. Michigan Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow engineered a major agricultural reform bill in 2014 — one of the few pieces of major legislation accomplished by the 113th Congress. That American government would function much more smoothly if there were more women in power in Congress became a common refrain. For instance, Time magazine headlined a piece on the shutdown by Jay Newton-Small, Women are the Only Adults Left in Washington. Many women politicians are happy to fan those flattering notions.
"The women have had a history of working well together and trusting each other. We actually get to know each other. We know who each other's kids are, we know what our lives are like," Minnesota Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar told me. "And that's just not always true with the men. I think that helps to build trust, and trust is what you need in a time of crisis."
"There are a lot of great men, obviously, who are pragmatic problem solvers as well," Michigan Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm said. "But, at least in this moment in our culture, women are the ones who are willing to do the hard work, be pragmatic, and work together. There is a shortage among male politicians of a willingness to do this." Men see politics as "a zero sum game" while women work together, Granholm's Republican counterpart New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman said. "Women approach issues in a different way. They're less intent on having it their own way."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Breakthrough"
Copyright © 2016 Nancy L. Cohen.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Outside In,
Chapter 2: The New Guard,
Chapter 3: Leading While Female,
Chapter 4: Goldilocks Nation,
Chapter 5: Hillary,
Chapter 6: A Brief History of Women's Political Inequality,
Chapter 7: The Republican Dilemma,
Chapter 8: The Politics of Women's Bodies,
Chapter 9: Breakthrough,
Chapter 10: Why Women's Leadership Matters,