When Walter Mondale plucked Geraldine Ferraro from her Queens Congressional district and placed her on the Democratic ticket in 1984, it was hailed as a fundamentally transformative occasion: From that moment on, women seeking national office would be the norm.
It hasn’t quite work out that way.
In the 24 years since, all of the presidential and vice-presidential nominee from the two major parties have been men, and it wasn’t until 2000—16 years after Ferraro’s selection—that a woman, Republican Elizabeth Dole, sought the nomination of a major party. Another woman, Carol Moseley-Braun, campaigned for the 2004 Democratic nomination, but built no discernible organization, raised little money and generated scant interest.
In that sense, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign has already made history: Her New Hampshire victory seven weeks ago marked the first time a woman had ever won a primary or caucus, and the millions of votes she has won and tens of millions of dollars she has raised represent leaps and bounds of progress from the Dole and Moseley-Braun efforts (and Shirley Chisholm, for that matter, who waged a symbolic candidacy for the 1972 Democratic nomination).
But Clinton is on the verge of coming up short. And for all her breakthroughs, it’s fair to wonder if her candidacy will do any more than Ferraro’s to give rise to more female candidacies in subsequent elections.
“I think it will be seen as a setback by female candidates, mainly because in the asset column she had so much,” said Pat Schroeder, the congresswoman who represented a Denver-based district in Colorado from 1973 until 1997, in a phone interview. “She had a lot of things going for her that other female candidates wouldn’t have.”
One of those things is campaign money, the acute need for which Schroeder, who is supporting Clinton this year, is tragically familiar.
Once upon a time, she was going to be the woman who embarked on the full-fledged presidential campaign for which Ferraro had paved the way. That was in 1987, when Schroeder’s fellow Coloradan and political ally, Gary Hart, dropped out of the 1988 Democratic race amid charges of marital infidelity. Schroeder, then 47 and in her eighth term in the House, announced that she’d run—as long as her supporters armed her with a credible bankroll.
“If there is dough, we go,” she proclaimed in June 1987. “If there isn’t, we don’t.”
She spent the summer of ’87 performing all of the perfunctory acts of candidacy—heavy travel, speeches, frantic fund-raising—and was hardly invisible in polling. An early September survey showed her with 6 percent of the Democratic vote in a cluttered and chaotic field. (Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis was at 13 percent.) But when her self-appointed deadline for raising $2 million came at the end of that month, she was painfully short. So she bowed out of a race she never formally entered.
“It was just very clear that it was going to be impossible to raise money,” Schroeder recalled. “People give you money because they think you’re going to win and they want to be the ambassador to the Court of St. James, not because they agree with your positions. And as a woman, there’s no one who looked like me who’d ever won. So they all would say they thought it was a good idea for me to run, but they didn’t want to give any money.”
The money issue also prevented Schroeder from seriously considering runs in later years, particularly 1992, when there was early talk that she might enter the race. And fund-raising similarly bedeviled Dole’s ill-fated 2000 bid; she cited the money gap as her main reason for dropping out in October 1999. At least now, Schroeder pointed out, female candidates can potentially use the Internet to bypass the traditional sources of campaign cash that may be closed to them.
Clinton’s experience this year, according to Schroeder, has reinforced another hurdle she faced when she looked to run 20 years ago: uneven media coverage.
At the press conference in which she announced that she wouldn’t be an ‘88 candidate, Schroeder complained that the press had “driven [her] crazy by questions of should I wear suits, should I wear earrings, how did my hair look when I dressed up.” She also broke into tears twice during that same press conference, which produced a media firestorm not unlike the one that greeted Clinton’s misty-eyed moment on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.
In the case of Clinton, Schroeder said she’s not sure if gender is the reason she’s been falling short, but said that she’s certain that “the tone of the press has been a lot more negative toward her.”
“If you look at this campaign objectively, she did very well at all of the early debates, and most of the pundits said that she proved the most and got the most out of them,” Schroeder said. “And then the minute she lost Iowa, it seemed to be Pile-On 101. It was like, ‘OK, now we can go after her.’ For the last four or eight weeks, this race has been a virtual tie—but no one talks about that.”
She also pointed to the harsh (and often bewildering) insults that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has tossed Clinton’s way, as well as the way Tim Russert handled the questioning at one particular debate last fall.
“All of the tough questions and the majority of all questions, he fired at her first,” Schroeder said. “I don’t know what drives that. I wish I did.”
Clinton has also had to contend with what Schroeder said is a much subtler form of sexism on the part of the electorate. When she explored a bid, polls showed a considerable chunk of the electorate rejecting the idea of a female president out of hand. That opinion still exists, Schroeder said, just under the surface.
“It was much more overt than what Hillary is going through. But the ‘coverts’ are much harder … because if you (try to confront it), they’re like, ‘There you go again, bringing it up.’”
In the wake of Ferraro’s ‘84 run, Schroeder, an outspoken progressive leader in Congress with a national following, was seen as a logical presidential candidate. If Clinton does come up short this year, she was asked, is there anyone to carry the torch for women in 2012 or 2016?
“I haven’t even begun to think about that,” she replied.
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