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Twenty-four years after Ferraro, Clinton and Palin changed the political landscape for women

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 31, 2008 - Angela Griffin, 24, is a junior majoring in English at UMSL. Griffin's hometown is Richmond, Va. 

College student Angela Griffin was just 3 weeks old in 1984, when Democratic candidate Geraldine Ferraro made American history as the first woman nominated for vice president by a major political party.

Although it has taken 24 years for another woman to follow in Ferraro's footsteps, Griffin believes that this time the door will stay open to women, no matter how the 2008 election turns out.

"I think that it's definitely brought the idea that women could have political roles to the forefront -- making it sort of like a household name, or household idea,'' said Griffin, a junior majoring in English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "People are going to be a lot more accepting to that idea than any other election before.''

As elections go, 2008 is already one for the history books, guaranteeing that the nation will have either its first African-American president or its first woman vice president.

While Sen. Barack Obama was breaking through the racial glass ceiling to win the Democratic presidential nomination, women were also climbing farther up the political ladder. First up was New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who gave Obama a run for his money in the primaries. Then came Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, who fired up Sen. John McCain's campaign after he chose her as his running mate.

Allegations of sexism have been rampant -- whether jokes about Clinton's pantsuits or Palin's $150,000 designer wardrobe purchased by the Republican National Committee. A comment by Obama about "lipstick on a pig" made headlines for days after the McCain campaign charged "sexism" because Palin had made a joke about lipstick, hockey moms and pit bulls in her acceptance speech at the GOP convention.

Griffin said that even though women politicians have made great strides this election year, they still face inequities.

"There is always a double standard in every part of life,'' Griffin said. "There's always a double standard, and in the super-charged world of politics everything just gets blown up even more so.''

Griffin, who is from Richmond, Va., said she is bucking her family's tradition of voting Republican. Even though she supports Obama, Griffin believes Palin has been subjected to sexism because she is a pretty woman with a strong personality.

"I feel bad for her because she has had such a hard time of it. She was thrown into this situation,'' Griffin said.

At the same time, Griffin said she is disappointed that Palin got the opportunity to run for vice president when Clinton didn't.

"It's really frustrating to me that she is the woman who gets to be on the vice presidential ticket just because she is so unqualified compared to Hillary,'' Griffin said. "I think that someone who is more qualified should be able to be 'that woman.' ''

Not "that woman"

The fact that Palin is not the feminist pick for "that woman" is at the heart of the criticism surrounding her candidacy, says Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum. Schlafly pooh-poohs as feminist nonsense the charges of sexism.

Is the United States ready for a woman vice president -- or president?

The answer is a firm "Yes,'' according to students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, interviewed Thursday.

The students were eating lunch in the student center, as the documentary "What's Your Point, Honey?" played in the background. The documentary by filmmaker Amy Sewell tackles issues of gender in politics by highlighting seven young women with aspirations to run for president in 2024.

Most of the UMSL students were babies – or not yet born – in 1984 when Democrat Geraldine Ferraro broke the political glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party.

Although women representing minor political parties have appeared on presidential ballots since 1984, this year's Republican nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president ends a 24-year absence of women candidates by the country's two major parties.

Angela Griffin, 24, is a junior majoring in English at UMSL. Griffin's hometown is Richmond, Va.

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Brooke Redmond, 21, of Kirkwood, is a senior majoring in communication at UMSL.

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Jason Vasser, 30, of St. Louis, is a senior majoring in anthropology.

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Kris Johnson, 24, of Hazelwood, who has a degree in history, is studying elementary education at UMSL.

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Tabitha Wiliams, 22, of St. Genevieve,  a senior majoring in accounting.

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Timothy Volkert, 21, of St. Louis, is a junior majoring in political science and is president of the  Political Science Academy at UMSL.

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"It's not surprising that some people are saying that -- especially if they are men,'' Schlafly said. "But I don't hear Sarah Palin saying it because Sarah Palin is not a feminist. It is the feminists who do all kinds of whining. A lot of men have been really deceived. They don't understand it. It's just like the men in McCain's campaign who went and bought those clothes for her. She didn't go out and buy those clothes."

Schlafly said the attacks on Palin haven't been because she is a woman but because she is a social and economic conservative. Palin is an opponent of abortion, even in the case of a mother's health, and supports abstinence-only sex education.

"I've run for office a couple of times, and I never had one single person tell me they were voting for or against me because I was a woman. I just don't think Americans think that way. Conservatives, in particular, like pro-family conservatives, and she was the best one available,'' Schlafly said.

Schflafly said the attacks on Palin have been unfair, but the nominee herself has not been complaining.

"She's just a can-do woman who goes ahead and does it all," Schlafly said.

Schlafly said Palin was chosen because of her political positions not her gender.

"It's a real breakthrough for women. I do not believe she was chosen because she is a woman, but the fact that she is certainly kind of different has added fresh air to the whole campaign. It's given a lot of energy and excitement to the party, and I think it was a brilliant move on the part of McCain and it has been very helpful. The only negatives are McCain's staff -- they don't really understand her and have tried to manage her, which was not helpful. But on her own she does just fine,'' Schlafly said.

Palin herself has offered contradictory descriptions of herself as a feminist. In a CBS interview with Katie Couric in late September, she said she was a feminist.

"I'm a feminist who, uh, believes in equal rights and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway,'' Palin told Couric. "And I'm very, very thankful that I've been brought up in a family where gender hasn't been an issue. You know, I've been expected to do everything growing up that the boys were doing. We were out chopping wood and you're out hunting and fishing and filling our freezer with good wild Alaskan game to feed our family. So it kind of started with that."

But in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams several weeks later, Palin declined to call herself a feminist, saying that she did not want to be "labeled."

Palin is trying to walk a fine line between identifying with far-leaning conservative women and modern women, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, which has launched the Feminists for Obama organization.

"I find it absolutely fascinating because when she talked to Katie Couric, she knew she could not say, 'I'm a Phyllis Schlafly Eagle Forum member,' '' Smeal said. "Palin is not identifying with the right-wing women of her own party, she is trying to identify with modern women -- and feminists really are modern women, and we're the vast majority. And, so she said, 'I'm a feminist, and I think inbetween people said, 'You can't go this far.' ''And so then she said, 'I'm not into labels, but I will be an advocate for women and a friend of women in the office.''

Smeal said McCain chose Palin to galvanize the conservative party base, which has more men than women and tends to "preach a more traditional anti-feminist position.''

"She is obviously uncomfortable with that; she's a more modern woman... She's not saying I'm anti-feminist, and those women are the problem and they're destroying families. It just shows you the depth of support for the women's rights movement."

What women voters want

Although political pundits have made much of the claim that McCain brought Palin on board to grab disaffected Clinton voters after Obama picked Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate, political scientists say it isn't that simple. Women voters are not monolithic, and the so-called gender voting gap might not help McCain, despite Palin's gender.

"There is an old notion in polling: Party trumps gender,'' said Vivian Eveloff, director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at UMSL.

In other words, it's not the fact that Clinton and Palin are women but what they stand for, Eveloff said.

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the voting gender gap -- a difference in the way women and men vote -- was first identified in the early 1980s. Political scientists have found this gap to be a difference of between 4 and 11 points in national and statewide elections, with women preferring Democratic candidates in larger numbers and proportions than do men. In a close election, a gender gap is likely to make a difference for the Democrat.

"When the candidate on the ticket is a Democrat and a woman, there is an even larger gender gap,'' Mandel says. "When the Republican candidate is a woman, there is typically no benefit from the gender gap. The gender gap is really about a partisan preference and when the Democrat is a woman, you get a kind of enthusiasm level on top.''

Mandel says that, in the end, voters usually make their decisions on issues that are important to them, such as abortion, the economy or the war.

Smeal said feminists may been disappointed that Obama didn't choose Clinton as his running mate, but they won't be fooled into voting for a candidate they don't agree with on issues such as abortion, family planning, equal pay, Title IX and domestic violence.

"They want a qualified person, and they also want a woman who is pro-women's rights. She is not pro-women's rights, and she is not qualified,'' Smeal said.

Schlafly argues that Palin is the best-qualified candidate, but the media are too entranced with Obama to give her proper due.

"Sarah Palin is a great asset to the ticket. I'm sure she'll be a good vice president, and I admire John McCain because he doesn't seem to be upset that she upstages him. We give him special points for that,'' Schlafly said.

Whether voters end up seeing Palin as the "maverick" as the Republicans claim, or as "unqualified'' as the Democrats charge, her candidacy will have a place in political history.

"I do think that in some ways, it's dropped barriers -- in that you have a woman who is not like the usual women we see in public office,'' Eveloff said.

Anything you can do ...

For a generation of women voters who are too young to remember when Ferraro ran for vice president, 2008 has been a year that confirms what they have always been told: that girls can do anything boys can do.

"My mother has always been my role model, and I've never been told, 'You're a girl, you can't do that.' She tells me, 'You're a woman, and you can do it better,' '' said Brooke Redmond, 21, of Kirkwood, a senior majoring in communication at UMSL.

Redmond said this year's election has helped people reach a comfort level with having a woman in the Oval Office -- or as vice president. She believes questions over whether Palin, a mother of five children, including a special-needs infant, would be able to handle the pressures of the vice presidency while rearing a family weren't so much sexist but out of concern because it's never been done.

"I heard that from mostly older women. They know what it's like to raise a family,'' Redmond said.

Redmond said no matter who wins this election, she believes more women will run for president in the future because Clinton and Palin have served as a spark.

"I think we can take that next step and say, 'They're doing it, why can't I?' " she said.

But while society may feel more ready for a woman president, the real question for the future may be how many qualified women are in the "pipeline," points out Eveloff of the Institute for Women in Public Life, which was founded in 1996 to assist women in developing the interest and skills to serve as elected or appointed public officials.

Although women make up a majority of the population in Missouri, for example, they comprise less than 25 percent of the state legislature. And, Eveloff adds, most presidential candidates are either former U.S. senators or governors, a primarily male pool of talent.

The same holds true, for judgeships, she says. While more than 50 percent of law school graduates are now women, they are not proportionately represented in the judicial ranks.

"It's the old concept of having a seat at the table,'' Eveloff said. "When you look around for somebody to pick, you tend to pick the people who are at your table or who you've been at the table with. And they all look like -- not Barack Obama and not Sarah Palin -- but Joe Biden and John McCain. It's just self-perpetuating. I don't think it's a conspiracy. It's a matter of visibility and changing the way you think."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.