WASHINGTON — A woman? Yes. But not that woman.

It is the platitude of the moment, an automatic rejoinder to any suggestion that Hillary Clinton has struggled so desperately — and so far unsuccessfully — to grasp the Democratic presidential nomination in some measure because she is female.

It isn’t the woman part, the rationale goes. It’s the Clinton part: That “polarizing” persona and “unlikable” demeanor. The unappetizing thought of President “Billary.” The more inspirational quest by Barack Obama to become the country’s first black president.

Yet the question remains: If not now, when? If not Hillary, who?

The record suggests that if Clinton is not the nominee, no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation. This was the outcome of the 1984 Geraldine Ferraro experiment. After 24 years, Ferraro remains the only woman ever to run for national office on a major party ticket. And she was selected, not elected, as a vice presidential candidate.

“Maybe a generation from now,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “My feeling is, I don’t see who’s coming after Clinton and I don’t feel like it’s going to be easy for whoever comes next.”

The United States already lags miserably behind the rest of the world in electing a woman as head of state. To look around the globe is to see a stark truth: Americans seem peculiarly averse to female leadership.

Women have had some success in gaining legislative office. Yet only eight women currently serve as governors, the springboard to the White House for four of the last five presidents.

So which woman, exactly, would be acceptable?

Readers — that inexact approximation of vox populi — typically answer: Someone like Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth Dole or Condoleezza Rice or Christine Todd Whitman or maybe Kathleen Sebelius, the Democratic governor of Kansas. The roll call itself illuminates the barriers.

Thatcher, for instance, never ran for executive office on her own. She became the first (and only) female prime minister of Britain by reaching the leadership of the Conservative Party. That is how many women heads of state have risen — through parliamentary systems that often use quotas to guarantee women legislative seats. Americans don’t like quotas much.

And we don’t like political wives who strike out on their own. Yet around the world, presidential spouses, widows and daughters are elected with stunning regularity. Indira Gandhi of India, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Cristina Fernandez, the current Argentine president — who succeeded her husband — all rose to power through family connections.

Here, though, revulsion often is expressed at the prospect of the Bushes and Clintons trading the White House among one another. But the “dynasty” argument didn’t impede other American political families: not the Adamses, nor the Roosevelts nor the Kennedys. It sure didn’t keep George W. Bush from becoming president.

Though it never sparked the rancor attached to Clinton’s White House drive, Elizabeth Dole’s brief presidential bid in 2000 was a preview. Dole, now a Republican senator from North Carolina, served as a Cabinet secretary in two administrations and headed the American Red Cross. Yet a review of media coverage by Rutgers political scientists showed that when Dole received in-depth coverage, nearly two-thirds of the stories mentioned her marriage to Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader and presidential candidate. Elizabeth Dole’s marriage to a powerful politician often drowned out discussion of her own record.

No woman on the political horizon possesses the portfolio that Clinton brought to this campaign: national name recognition. A record as a prodigious fundraiser — for herself and scores of other Democrats. Winner of two Senate races in New York, a rough-and-tumble state with a trove of 31 Electoral College votes and Democratic donors with deep pockets. And a huge, loyal base of support within her party.

Who can compare? Not Secretary of State Rice. She’s never run for elective office, and it’s tough to run for president with no experience in those muddy trenches. Not Whitman. The former New Jersey governor has openly broken with conservatives who dominate the Republican Party. Not Sebelius. She heads a state with six electoral votes and limited fundraising potential.

Clinton cleared the hurdles often cited as holding American women back, yet she is unlikely to surmount the final barrier. So you have to wonder.

Is it something about Hillary, or something about us?

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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