Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
If you didn’t realize women don’t rule the world (yet), you’re not alone. In front of a full house at the 92nd Street Y Wednesday night, Chelsea Clinton made a confession.
“Until my mother ran for president, I wasn’t fully cognizant of how few women run for office and how few women hold office,” Clinton said. She then rattled off this depressing fact: The United States ties Turkmenistan at 78th place for the percentage of women in national political office. “Not enviable company,” she quipped.
At a time when women's issues repeatedly emerge as a theme of this year’s political conversation - Komen and Planned Parenthood, the fight over birth control and even the stalled reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – a panel of six women led by Clinton spent the evening hashing out a different women’s issue: Why it’s so hard to get women off the sidelines and into the political race.
There is the ugly nature of the game and the challenges that come with being a woman in public life, according to Amy Holmes, a news anchor on Glenn Beck's GBTV and former speechwriter for Senator Bill Frist. At the same time, she thinks men enjoy that combativeness.
“They revel in their enemies and their attacks and the scalps they can put up on their walls,” said Holmes, “whereas women think more deeply about it.”
Sometimes one gets thrust into public life, Clinton said as she introduced panelist Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law School student who famously testified before Congress in support of birth control access -- and then was infamously attacked by Rush Limbaugh for it. Clinton said that experience gave them something in common. “We’ve both been attacked by Rush Limbaugh - except she was 30 and I was 13.”
Fluke argued that there were systemic barriers that blocked women from political careers, whether it’s access to birth control (surprise!) or lack of available child care.
“I think we have to not just be stereotypical women and blame ourselves,” said Fluke, “but we also need to say these policies need to be better for us so we can be a part of it.”
An atmosphere needs to be fostered that encourages women to run, suggested Abby Huntsman Livingtson, daughter of former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. Before joining her father’s campaign, she worked for ABC News and for Good Morning America, positions she thought would give her a leg up when it came to helping the team develop her father’s messages. But she said the campaign team, predominantly men, didn’t see her as an asset. So she and her sister decided to do their own thing, creating a Twitter account and the Herman Cain parody video.
As the only politician on the panel, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said her success came when she tuned out the detractors. When she first ran for Speaker, she said people constantly told her she couldn't win, “Because I was from the west side of Manhattan, cause I was too liberal, because I was a woman, because I was a lesbian,“ said Quinn, “all things I knew when I woke up that morning, you know what I’m saying.”
The expected 2013 Mayoral candidate said she believes that gender has no place in Big Apple politics, “the sky is the limit in New York.”
But not everyone shared her optimism. Nicole Wallace, the former communications chief for George W. Bush and senior adviser on the McCain-Palin campaign, left politics entirely. She now writes fiction.
“I was so scarred by 2008 I made up an imaginary world,” said Wallace, whose novels include Eighteen Acres and It’s Classified. In this world, a moderate woman from California is president, and she doesn’t have it all.
From Wallace’s view, the books are her way to wrestle the demons from 2008, in terms of how women – particularly Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama – were portrayed throughout that campaign.
But panelist Stephanie Schriock said she thinks things are moving in the right direction. Head of the pro-choice political action committee Emily's List, Schriok offered this answer to the question: where are the women?
“They're running for office right now in 2012. We have a historic number of women running for the United States Senate,” said Schriock. She said the real question is: what needs to happen to make sure they win?