We've heard it from women throughout this campaign: "I'd love to see a woman president — just not this woman. I'll wait for the right one." Don't hold your breath. Hillary Clinton may have been uniquely positioned to break through the all-male barrier to president.
Women who find Clinton's candidacy somehow tainted by the fact that she derives power from her husband's presidency fail to understand traditional paths to female political power. For decades in this country, a woman only made it to Congress as the widow of a congressman. Many of them went on to exert considerable influence. (Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, is one example.)
And if you look abroad, you often see women rising to high office after their husbands or fathers: Argentina's Cristina Kirchner succeeded her husband, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the current president of the Philippines, along with India's Indira Gandhi, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto and Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri all followed in their father's footsteps to head their nations.
Without the connections made when her husband campaigned for and served in the presidency, Hillary Clinton would have never been able to put together the money and staff to run a credible national campaign. And without her own years in the White House in addition to her Senate service, she would not be able to claim the experience voters continue to cite as her most compelling attribute.
Other possible female candidates face much higher hurdles. The pool is currently limited to cabinet officers (no political experience), members of Congress (no executive experience) or governors (no foreign-policy experience). The same is true of men, of course, but they don't carry the added burden of sex — and sex IS a burden. Earlier this year, 72 percent of white voters told Los Angeles Times pollsters that they thought the country was ready for a black president, while only 63 percent said the same about a woman.
Battling those prejudices — plus the blatant sexism in much of the coverage — is daunting. Seeing Hillary Clinton do it day after day might inspire some women politicians, but it's likely to discourage more. Clinton's campaign "hardly made it look like something that most mortals … male or female would want to take on," Ruth Mandel told the Chicago Tribune. Founder of Rutgers University's Center for American Women in Politics, Mandel added, "I see her as Wonder Woman blazing the trail, but I don't know what that means for mortals coming up behind her."
Aside from the effect on female politicians, this campaign is also likely to influence the decisions of their male counterparts. They could read Clinton's defeat as proof that voters simply won't go for a woman. Here again, history provides a useful guide.
In the lead-up to the 1984 presidential campaign, politicians focused on the women's vote. In 1980, for the first time since suffrage, women showed up at the polls in equal numbers to men and they voted differently — more Democratic — than men did. Two years later, millions more women voted and they succeeded in electing Democrats who lost the male vote, and in some states, the white vote.
Democratic Party excitement over those two elections resulted in the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as vice president, amid much hype about what her history-making run would mean for the ticket taking on Ronald Reagan. When the sitting president then won 49 states, through no fault of Ferraro's, the politicians woke up the next day talking about nothing but the white-male vote.
Still, Ferraro broke through the ceiling of the vice-presidential nomination. Something no woman has yet done for president. And it's hard to see what woman other than Hillary Clinton can do that, unless it's a female vice president. That credential would trump the New York senator's years in the White House.
Republicans have more to gain by picking a woman for the second spot. The move might attract independent women and drain some disaffected Clinton supporters away from the Democrats. Democrats, on the other hand, would have to think hard before deciding to put a woman on the ticket if Barack Obama is the nominee. A young African-American man plus a woman up against a war hero could spell disaster.
But with polls showing the race so close, is either party likely to take the risk of a woman on the ticket? Or what if a woman is nominated for vice president and then loses? For those of us who would like to see a woman as president of the United States, it could be a very long wait.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.