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Review: Want to see a female president? Read Anne E. Kornblut's 'Notes From the Cracked Ceiling'

There's already a shelf's worth of books about the 2008 presidential campaign. But do save a space for Anne E. Kornblut's insightful look at the women candidates and the effects of gender on the race, Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win.

Kornblut, a reporter for the Washington Post, covered Hillary Clinton for years, from her time as a senator to her historic run for the presidency. The book recounts not only the runs of Clinton and Sarah Palin but looks at other female leaders around the country.

Kornblut's thesis is that gender is an inescapable prism for viewing the women's candidacies. In the case of Clinton and Palin, Kornblut writes, "They may not have lost because they were women — and no one, in the dozens and dozens of interviews I conducted, ever argued they had — but their sex played an outsize role in the year's events, coloring every decision they made, every public perception, and every reaction by their campaigns."

To be successful in politics, women have to achieve two goals that are sometimes at cross purposes with each other, according to experienced strategists. They have to project toughness and competence, showing that they won't flinch before a difficult task. But they also have to show personal warmth, preferably in a role of mother, daughter, sister or wife.

In Kornblut's telling, Clinton and her advisers focused too much on the first and not at all on the second. Likability became an issue for Clinton, and by the time the campaign had regrouped, Barack Obama had racked up too many victories to be defeated.

Clinton herself seemed to shy away from discussing her gender because she didn't want to be perceived as self-centered or whining. According to Kornblut, Clinton's own advisers had to talk her into including the famous line about "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling — a reference to the number of votes she received — in her speech acknowledging Obama's victory.

Palin, on the other hand, had a completely different set of gender challenges. Kornblut writes that John McCain's all-male inner circle had little experience with female candidates, and the strategists seemed oblivious to the likelihood of gender-laden attacks. The campaign was caught flat-footed when questioned about the birth of Palin's fifth child and her teen daughter's pregnancy.

"What most disoriented Palin's defenders was that the barrage of personal questions was coming not just from the conservative defenders of family values but from the media, and from liberals, blurring the traditional lines over motherhood and the workplace," Kornblut writes.

Kornblut also discusses the weird phenomenon, documented by social psychologists, that women can be considered too attractive to be perceived as smart or competent. When Palin performed poorly in media interviews with Katie Couric, it fed a ditzy stereotype seized upon by comedian Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. Kornblut notes early on that women can be one another's fiercest critics.

It's difficult to write about politics and gender without making overly broad generalizations, so Kornblut is at her best when discussing specific examples of women candidates. She reports how Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's campaign handled the "too pretty" problem: They shot her ads in black and white and chose still photography over video. Kornblut interviewed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who said women candidates should have more confidence in their qualifications: "Look at these yahoo guys that have been in public office for two hundred years," she tells Kornblut. "You think we cannot do as well as they do? I mean, give me a break."

Kornblut also describes the particular challenges that Republican women face. Pollsters say they're seen as Republicans first and women second, so they don't gain an advantage with women voters but still have to surmount all the old stereotypes. Kornblut profiles Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and a Republican candidate for governor of California, and suggests Whitman is forging new ground as a woman candidate with a hefty business resume. (Florida's Alex Sink, a Democrat, is mentioned only briefly.)

Regardless of one's political leanings, Notes From the Cracked Ceiling should be required reading for anyone interested in seeing women elected to public office.

Angie Drobnic Holan is on the staff of PolitiFact.

Notes From the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win

By Anne E. Kornblut

Crown, 288 pages, $25

Review: Want to see a female president? Read Anne E. Kornblut's 'Notes From the Cracked Ceiling' 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 3:30am]
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