Cover Story: The Clinton Campaign Legacy

Local women discuss the Clinton effect and how women win in politics

May 7, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Connie Pillich says successful women politicians need a supportive network of family and friends.

It's happened in Israel, India, Ireland and England. It's even happened in Liberia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Chile.

But in the United States, a country where women make up a majority of the population and are among the most free in the world, a woman has never had a real shot as the top political leader of the nation. Until now.

Mrs. Clinton. New York Senator Clinton. First Lady. Hillary. No woman in modern politics has been as vilified or praised. She's either your greatest hope or worst nightmare.

And until the "skinny man with the funny name" made the 2008 campaign what's bound to be one of the longest, most expensive and historic Democratic primaries in history, Clinton was set as the party's most viable presidential candidate. As of early May, it's still unclear whom the eventual nominee will be, though Clinton lags behind Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

For Cincinnati women Democrats deeply involved in politics, some running their own high-profile races this year, Clinton is breaking down barriers. She's showing how a real woman runs a campaign and the fine line she must walk in a traditionally male-dominated arena.

"She's blazing the trail, not only in the race she's running for but for races such as mine," says Victoria Wulsin of Indian Hill, who is facing Republican U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt in a rare woman vs. woman race for Ohio's 2nd Congressional District. "I believe every woman following her can benefit from her courage, her vision, her withstanding the slings and arrows of life on the campaign trail."

But it's been a long road for Clinton, paved with the ground-breaking candidacies of other women before her for mayor, governor, council and Congress. Although women's growing political empowerment is evident by this presidential run, progress has been slow and victory is far from assured.

"There are so many more candidates running, it's getting to the point now where it's not nearly so unusual," says Kathy Hemblock, a founding member of the Cincinnati Women's Political Caucus who's been a volunteer for dozens of campaigns in the last 30 years. "The novelty has worn off. At the same time, women not only have to be every bit as knowledgeable as any male candidate, they also have to deal with the kind of sexism that is socially acceptable, references in the press to clothing or hair or voice."

There are eight women governors in the U.S. and more women in Congress than ever. California Rep. Nancy Pelosi made history when she became the first Speaker of the House in 2007. And women's gains in office are theirs alone, Hemblock says, unlike the past when females often filled a seat because a husband died.

University of Cincinnati communications professor Judith Trent says it's too early to judge what long-term impact Clinton's candidacy will have for other women.

"Whether or not the process is going to be moved along more rapidly because of Clinton, I'm just not sure," Trent says. "Certainly we have made strides, but it doesn't even come close to approaching parity (in political representation)."

From homemaker to the White House
To understand why it's taken so long for a women to progress to the top spot in the U.S., you have to look back.

Women nationwide were largely shut out of the political process until 1920, when the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a woman's right to vote. Before then, states had varying laws related to women's suffrage.

It took more than 70 years to gain that right after the first women's rights meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y. called for it. It would take decades of legal battles between suffragists and anti-suffragist men (and some women).

Women have been playing catchup ever since, with starts and stops along the way. A major turning point came in 1992, dubbed the "Year of the Woman," when a handful of new women were elected to the U.S. House and Senate.

Since then they've made gains in elective office in local, state and national politics, but the gains have been slow and there have been setbacks. There are indications, for example, that the number of elected females in state legislatures is stagnating.

Often when a woman leaves office, a male counterpart replaces her. Fund-raising and political networks are still male-dominated, though some local women say that's changing.

Nationally, some of the big fund-raising power players include EMILY'S List PAC; for Republican Women there's the WISH List PAC and the Susan B. Anthony List PAC.

The Northern Kentucky Women's Democratic Network is one of the newer fund-raising and recruitment organizations for local women. The group formed after Democrat Lois Combs Weinberg's unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against Republican Mitch McConnell in 2002, network chair Joan Gregory says.

"In 2006, we gave over $24,000 to candidates," Gregory says. "They were not all women, but women got the money first."

This year's presidential race has attracted more women to politics, she says, especially younger women who typically aren't involved.

Kentucky Senate candidate Kathy Groob of Fort Mitchell says organizations like the Democratic network are important to a candidate's success.

"I think it's hugely important you have a sisterhood that exists," says Groob, who's running her second race against State Sen. Jack Westwood of Erlanger. "Women are way underrepresented, especially in the state of Kentucky. What I'm looking for is balance."

Women's political networks, fund-raising, recruitment and training are key to getting more "women in the pipeline" for higher political office, including Congress and the presidency, says Cincinnati Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls, a former mayor. Clinton's candidacy is evidence of that, she says.

"This really is culmination of over 30 years worth of effort," Qualls says. "The object coming out of the '60s was to get women elected to office, and a recognition of that is women are able to run for president and higher offices."

Candidates balance life and leadership
While Clinton comes with a particular brand of baggage, all women face special challenges in campaigning, local candidates and politicians say, that can make it difficult to run for office and progress up the political ladder.

"In some circles it's difficult to break into the political network," says Connie Pillich of Montgomery, a Democratic candidate for Ohio House against incumbent Jim Raussen.

Pillich, a first-time candidate when she narrowly lost to Raussen in 2004, used her existing network of friends and group affiliations to find volunteers for her race. Local Democratic clubs were also a big source of support, she says.

But Pillich, an attorney, said one of the biggest barriers for women is family life. Women in general still are responsible for the majority of childrearing and housework. It takes a supportive spouse, family and friends to help them become successful in office.

"I was away a lot, going out to meetings, appearances or door to door," she says. "I didn't get to have dinner with (my family) and I didn't get to make dinner for them."

Her husband, Paul Forshey, took over most of the family care responsibilities, and a friend helped with laundry.

Another barrier are the perceptions voters have about women running for office, including how aggressive they should be. Groob said it's a fine line when campaigning goes negative.

"How far do we go and still be ourselves? It's our nature to cooperate with the end result in mind," she said. "You see in Frankfort ego getting in the way of progress and gamesmanship."

Qualls said gender is just one candidate attribute that you just take into consideration when you run.

"Any person who chooses to run for office, regardless of gender, has to learn the skills required," she says. "Part of that is learning to overcome obstacles like a lack of political networks or people's perception of you or other factors beyond control."

Clinton's campaign shows women they can be strong candidates, and Pillich believes that will spark political ambitions in young girls in the future.

"My daughter is extremely impressed that a woman could be president, she's really surprised that we've never had one before and she's asking why," Pillich says. "We (all) should ask why, because if we stop asking why we're going to be in trouble." ©