Can You Imagine Two Women Running for President?

Post midterm, the most prominent female Democrat is still Hillary Clinton and the most prominent female Republican is still Sarah Palin. In other words, no sudden newcomer seems on the verge of a meteoric rise. Instead, we see glimmers on the horizon of potential new Republican female stars—Nikki Haley, Kelly Ayotte, incoming New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. At the moment, none of them have quite the pop of the new Florida senator, Marco Rubio. Still, they all emerged from the election with new prominence and their dignity and credibility intact. Tuesday was tougher for female Democrats trying to move up, like Alex Sink in Florida, though some big veterans held on (Boxer, Gillibrand *, and it’s finally official, Patty Murray). One potential if relatively obscure bright spot: Though her opponent hasn’t conceded, it looks like Kamala Harris, the African-American D.A. in San Francisco, eked out a victory for California attorney general. That’s the post incoming Gov. Jerry Brown will vacate.

For evidence that this was, for women, the Year of the Backslide, read this Washington Post article on the decreased diversity of the new Congress. “Flipping through their portraits, you see a blur of white men,” the writers say of the 100-plus new lawmakers coming to Washington. In a smart piece in Slate, Amanda Marcotte saw in the election returns a “curse of the Mama Grizzly.” Candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell lost, Amanda argues, because “they present a contradiction, laying claim to feminism while denouncing most feminist ideals.” This was supposed to be an asset, but it’s not, because conservatives sees ambitious women as suspect, and the media sees them as catnip and over-covers their every move.

I’m with Amanda on the extent of the media coverage, but I think O’Donnell and Angle lost mostly because they were hugely flawed candidates. A man who’d mismanaged his finances the way O’Donnell had, or said the wacky things that Angle said, would also have gotten trounced. For Exhibits A and B, I give you Carl Paladino in New York and (probably) Joe Miller in Alaska. Maybe the Mama Grizzlies aren’t cursed—just fallible and beatable, like everyone else. To return to your Sex and the City metaphor, Hanna: Why would we ever imagine the Samanthas would win elections? Dahlia, you brought up the success of the Susan B. Anthony List in backing winning pro-life candidates. You’re right, but a number of those victories involved their support for “pro-life men running against pro-abortion women,” as the group itself puts it, and as Robin Marty at RH Reality Check pointed out. This also scrambles the conservative feminist picture.

Over at TheNew Yorker, Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, cheers for how much the campaign sparked discussion of gender-inflected politics and sexism. Dahlia, you ask how we can keep that conversation going. The cyclical nature of it doesn’t really bother me—the election season is quite long enough, thank you. And I was struck this time around by how often questions about women candidates and their varying appeal did course through all kinds of media coverage and public discussion. The topic jumped the pink ghetto fence and didn’t look back. Meanwhile, I agree with Hanna that women made it pretty clear, in rejecting candidates like Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon, that they were voting issues, not biology. Which to me is another sign of progress. Maybe someday what felt new and striking this year—women running against women, women calling out sexist attacks by their opponents—will seem ordinary. Will we arrive at that point before one of the major parties chooses to run a woman for president? Or is that merely a matter of time, and can we look beyond it to the heady prospect of two women running against each other?

Let’s save those questions for next time and wrap up the discussion for now. It’s been super fun, as always,


Correction, Nov. 5, 2010: This post originally misspelled Gillibrand. (Return to the corrected sentence)