Race, identity, and the politics of gender

By Renee Loth
Globe Correspondent / January 26, 2010

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Does race trump gender? The question has been simmering in American society at least since the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, where racial identity was seen as more salient for the six black women on the jury than solidarity with the alleged victim of domestic violence. It is also a major theme in “Notes From the Cracked Ceiling,’’ a smart, engaging review of the 2008 presidential campaign and the enduring plight of women in politics.

Anne E. Kornblut, a political reporter for the Washington Post and former Globe staffer, puzzles through the shifting loyalties of voters as Hillary Clinton and then Sarah Palin make their runs at the ultimate glass ceiling. Despite all the gains for women in other realms, the presidency is still a bridge too far for many voters. Clinton and Palin’s gender, Kornblut notes, “played an outsize role in the year’s events, coloring every decision they made, every public perception, and every reaction by their campaigns.’’

To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all politics is relative. Compared to a traditional white male candidate, Clinton was a radical departure, the very embodiment of “change.’’ But next to Barack Obama, Clinton didn’t look like such a pioneer. With his compelling personal story and direct appeal to make history, Obama managed to do the impossible: make electing a woman president seem old hat.

It didn’t help that Clinton never appeared entirely comfortable in her gender. Kornblut describes Clinton’s struggle to project just the right balance between strength and compassion, a debate that consumed her advisers. Clinton’s campaign apparatus itself reflected ambivalence: The women’s outreach division was ghettoized in a separate unit, “cordoned off from the rest of the campaign and not involved in many of the core message issues.’’ Only when Clinton started losing was she liberated to be more herself, finding a coherent image as a protective “momma bear’’ fighting on behalf of American families.

Kornblut, who is 36, shines in her analysis of identity politics, especially among a younger “post-feminist’’ generation who wore their support for Obama as a badge of honor, “unburdened by any old-fashioned notions of loyalty or sisterhood, a sign that women were now diverse and evolved enough to disagree.’’

Similarly, she describes Palin’s handlers struggling with her beauty. Would it play into stereotypes of the dumb brunette, or should Palin “embrace her appearance, portraying her as part of the newer generation of women who own their attractiveness and use it as a powerful tool?’’ (Answer: both.)

Kornblut moves on to consider the winning formulas of other women, from US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to several dynamic newcomers - and to consider the rather thin bench of women waiting in the wings. She finds a surprising trend: a disproportionate number of successful women politicians (Janet Napolitano, Deborah Wasserman Schultz, Jodi Rell) are breast cancer survivors. The disease confers automatic respect, “comparable to withstanding a war wound’’ for men in the military. But what woman would volunteer for that service?

Eventually, Kornblut’s lens widens to consider women presidents in other countries, from Ellen Sirleaf in Liberia to Michelle Bachelet in Chile. There are some interesting insights here, but the section feels like padding.

Kornblut ends on a down note, despite a sweet photograph of girls wearing T-shirts proclaiming “I can be president.’’ Even in 2010, electing a woman “remains a bigger challenge than anyone wants to admit.’’ So perhaps the last words should go to Condoleezza Rice, familiar with the powerful cross-currents of both race and gender. “I, frankly, think we crossed the bar on African-Americans quite some time ago,’’ she tells Kornblut. “I’m not quite sure we’ve crossed it on women.’’

Renee Loth is a columnist and former editor of the Globe’s editorial page.

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 pp., $25