Looking For Hopeful Signs for the Advancement of Women and Leadership

For those of us who write about women in politics, 2008 was a year to remember, to say the least.  Hillary Clinton came close to winning the Democratic nomination for president and Sarah Palin burst on to the scene as John McCain’s running mate.  It a year of very visible progress for women at the highest level of elected office in the United States and both Clinton and Palin dominated the media.   Even though neither Hillary Clinton nor Sarah Palin won election, we were reminded constantly of the viability of women at the highest level.

But where are the women now?  In 2012 no woman is on the national ticket.  Does that mean that all progress for women in politics is lost?  Where can we look to find evidence that women are visible in this election, absent a woman on the national ticket?

Although not nearly as potent as seeing a woman run for president, two women will have voices at the national level this election year.  Candy Crowley of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC were selected to moderate a presidential and vice presidential debate, respectively. Crowley, host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” becomes the first woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate.    According to St. Louis University Professor of Communication Diana Carlin, a former advisory board member of the Commission of Presidential Debates, “while Crowley and Raddatz may ask the same types of questions that male moderators would ask, it is important to put role models up front and center. A common argument about the need for diversity in visible places is that ‘we cannot imagine what we haven’t seen.’ Seeing strong women pose tough questions to presidential and vice presidential candidates reminds us that women are equally qualified to participate in the political arena.”

In addition to the powerful role modeling that women moderators provide, it was also the way that both Crowley and Raddatz were chosen that may signal that the lack of women on the national ticket is temporary.    The selection of Crowley and Raddatz came after an intense grassroots effort led by three New Jersey teenagers. Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis  created an online petition, and solicited more than 150,000 signatures.  It was through a civics education program at their high school that the women became aware of the need of more women in positions of power.  If women are to rise in American politics it will be because young people like these extraordinary young women will make it happen.   

Looking to young women is something that The White House Project, an advocacy group aimed at promoting women’s leadership in business and politics has been doing for years.  The organization has once again endorsed the “Barbie for President” doll. While Barbie is a toy that has come under criticism from feminist groups because of its appearance, The White House Project  believes that putting the doll in the hands of young girls reminds them that they too can be president.

The notion that seeing women in positions of power can lead to the election of more women at the highest level has been borne out in research.  In a poll I conducted after the 2008 election, college age women reported that they believe a woman will be elected president in their lifetime because of the bids of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.   Visibility is a key to success in American politics and furthermore speaking confers a position of power.  To have Crowley and Raddatz asking questions of our candidates reminds voters of the power of women in politics. 

In addition to the moderators, we may also find clues in the words and actions of the spouses of the candidates and how their role has changed over the years.   How does the role of Hillary Clinton, secretary of state,  just names #2 on the Forbes list of ‘most powerful” women remind us of the potential of women leaders.  Do  women governors, speakers at the conventions and other women politicians who serve as pundits on television impact the continuation of progress for women in politics?   

So 2012 is no 2008 in terms of women on national tickets, but we can still consider the advancement of women in politics, and thanks to three teenage girls in New Jersey, we can be hopeful that women will continue to make a difference on the national stage.

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