As we watched President-elect Barack Obama name Hillary Clinton as his choice for secretary of state, the ceremony of it all seemed a fitting end to a pretty remarkable year for women in American politics. Sure, those same words were written in 1984, when the Democrats nominated New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate. Who would have thought then it would take 24 years before there would be women once again on the top party tickets?
Still, this year stands out because Clinton, who received 18 million votes in the Democratic presidential primaries, emerged from a contentious, hard-fought and close primary election with the respect and confidence of her opponent, who asked her to help lead his administration’s foreign policy team. And, 2008 marks the first year the Republicans named a woman as a vice presidential candidate. The surprise choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin shook up the race in a big way, first positively for John McCain, then, not so much as her star faded with her rabble-rousing stump style and leaked stories of her expensive campaign wardrobe. The implosion of the economy didn’t help, either.
While many believe McCain’s pick of Palin was really a sexist any-woman’ll-do choice, it was remarkable to see the mom of five occasionally wearing her baby, Trig, in a sling on the campaign trail for the second highest office in the land. It was equally as fascinating to watch as conservatives like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who had lambasted the parents of Jamie Lynn Spears, the teenage actress who gave birth at age 16, shrug off unmarried 17-year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and her mom’s decision to upend her family’s life during that pregnancy to run for VP. And, it was heartening to hear similar voices laud a mom of five’s successful career outside of the home.
When the 2008 campaign started, Hillary Clinton was portrayed in the press as the clear Democratic front runner, the first woman who would be taken seriously as a major party’s presidential candidate and who could be an effective commander in chief. Along the way, there were plenty of dark moments, from the campaign hecklers imploring her to “iron my shirt” and the T-shirts announcing, “Life’s a B----h, Don’t Vote for One.” But she endured to emerge as one of five women on Obama’s team of 14 cabinet picks so far.
Before we get all warm and fuzzy about the gains made by women on the campaign trail this year, however, we should note that while the number of seats held by women in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is at all-time high, they still make up a pretty sound minority. In the Senate, 17 of 100 senators in the 111th Congress will be women, and 74 of the 435 representatives in the House will be women.