As she begins her general election race for South Carolina's top statehouse job, Republican Nikki Haley is part of a group of candidates this year who are simultaneously pursuing another goal: to be their state's first female governor.
Women are running to break the political glass ceiling in eight states that have never had a female governor, including California, New Mexico and Minnesota. Currently, six women three Democrats and three Republicans serve as governors.
In South Carolina, Haley beat four-term Rep. J. Gresham Barrett in a runoff election for the GOP nomination Tuesday. Haley will face Democratic state lawmaker Vincent Sheheen in November in the race to succeed Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who is term-limited.
"South Carolina just showed the rest of the country what we're made of," Haley said after her victory. "It's a new day in our state, and I am very blessed to be a part of it."
The prevalence of female candidates for statewide office has been a defining narrative of the 2010 election season, particularly for Republicans. There are 13 GOP and 10 Democratic women running for Senate, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers.
"Part of it is timing and history," said Meg Whitman, a Republican who is running to be California's first female governor. "You've got a generation of women coming of age (who) are now engaging in the political process."
Yes, like with so many things, it is all about timing, especially for so many women to be running at the same time:
Thirty-one women have served as governor in 23 states, according to CAWP. If at least three of them win in the November elections, a majority of states would either have a woman in the governor's mansion or have had one in the past.
Debbie Walsh, the center's director, cautioned against putting too much stock in such benchmarks, though. New female governors may be elected this year, but three are retiring or face term limits, including Jodi Rell, R-Conn.; Linda Lingle, R-Hawaii; and Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich.
The percentage of women holding statewide executive offices has declined from 28.5% in 2000 to 22.9% in 2009, according to the center's statistics.
Conservative Women Have Success
"Having so few at any one time is part of the challenge," Walsh said, noting that statewide elected positions can serve as launching pads for presidential campaigns. Case in point: Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for president in 2008 as a Democratic senator from New York.
What's significant about 2010, Walsh said, is that "we are seeing more Republican women stepping up and taking the risk." In the past, she said, female GOP candidates have been more moderate than their male counterparts. This year, a fresh brand of female conservatives is having more success in primaries.
Several of those candidates, including Haley, have been endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
"Most of these women are not just Republicans, they are conservative Republicans," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports female politicians who oppose abortion rights. "This is the moment to seize because the environment is right," she said.
Plenty of Democratic women also are taking a stab at being their state's first female governor, including Florida's chief financial officer, Alex Sink, and state lawmaker Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell, who is running in Maine.
Diane Denish, who was elected New Mexico's first female lieutenant governor in 2002, is now seeking the state's top job. She said the number of women running nationwide "sends a great message to women and girls that anything is possible."
Because her Republican opponent, Susana Martinez, is also a woman, the state is guaranteed to make history. In a statement, Martinez said she appreciates the "historic significance of this election, as well as the elections taking place in other states."
That's pretty cool, actually - no matter who wins, it will be historic. Huh - where have I heard that before? I know, before people started acting like only an Obama win would be historic. Ahem. Yes, history will be made with wins by a number of these women, but that's not all there is to it:
Many of the female candidates, including Whitman and Martinez, have downplayed the gender issue in their own campaigns arguing that it doesn't matter whether a man or woman is victorious, as long as whoever takes the job gets results.
"That, to me, doesn't matter as much," said Sarah Franks, a 34-year-old teacher who voted for Haley, but not because she's a woman. "I mean I think it's neat, but that doesn't matter as much as just getting some new blood in the system."
True that. New blood cannot hurt considering where we are now. Still, I admit I am happy that women are rising to this level, and so many qualified women at that. But of course, we cannot deny that sexism is alive and well in this country as we all well know from the debacle of 2008. And I think most of us can agree that women still have to work harder than men to get to the same levels, and even then, as we know from the Obama v. Clinton debacle, that far more qualified and experienced women still do not beat out the younger, less-qualified men. So, yes, I am glad to see that so many qualified women are running, and in some cases, will definitely be making history. That's just cool.
As noted above, many of the women running are politically and socially conservative. But, that does not necessarily mean they are not feminists, as I have said for some time, and as Kathleen Parker points out in this piece, True (or false) Feminism:
Proving one's feminist bona fides has become the latest challenge for women aspiring to public office.
Is she a "real" feminist who walks in lockstep with traditional feminist orthodoxy? Or is she a faux feminist, i.e., a woman who has benefited from traditional feminism, become all that she could be, but, alas, thinks independently on certain sacred tenets of the sisterhood?
The latest debate emerged recently when pundits on both sides of the widening chasm weighed in on the number of pro-life (and pro-life-ish) Republican women running for public office. The back-and-forth seems to have begun when feminist Jessica Valenti criticized Sarah Palin in The Washington Post for declaring herself a feminist.
The implication: A pro-life woman can't really be a feminist.
Soon thereafter, Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review senior editor and author of "The Party of Death," declared in The New York Times that 2010 is the year of the pro-life woman, listing all those on today's ballot who happen to be pro-life.
Among them: Sharron Angle in Nevada, who will oppose Harry Reid for the U.S. Senate; South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who won the Republican nomination in California for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Barbara Boxer; Susana Martinez, who became her party's nominee for governor of New Mexico.
Seeing so many accomplished women reach the top of the political heap, not to mention their professions in some cases, should be cause for feminist celebration -- except for that one thing. Thus, left-leaning feminists in the blogosphere have responded breathlessly, which I mention only to suggest passion rather than to imply debutante tendencies, though who can be sure?
Frankly, the absolute vitriol heaped on conservative women by so-called liberal women was startling (including the vitriol directed at Hillary Clinton, for that matter). As I have noted previously, when I was marching for Equal Rights For Women, I thought it meant ALL women, not just women who held the same liberal beliefs I did. I thought it was for all women to be self-actualized, not just ones like me. Parker continues:
This all would be tedious if it weren't so entertaining. In fact, this is the crux of the crux in the arena of so-called women's issues. Can one be a pro-life feminist, or is the question an oxymoron?
As a matter of orthodoxy, yes, but as a matter of reality, not really.
We've come a long way, baby, and there's more than one type of woman roaming the vales and plains. But then, it was always so. There just weren't many varieties of women in the public sphere, as Ponnuru points out.
Earlier feminists were almost universally pro-choice and have dominated political debate until now. Having access to abortion was viewed as the only way women could have full equality with men, who, until recently, couldn't get pregnant.
OK, they still can't, but we've now witnessed a bearded transgendering woman having babies -- and fake wombs are inevitable -- so anything's possible, apparently. Good luck with all that.
Back to the point, we now see women who have managed to gain equality with men while also raising children, none more explicitly than Sarah Palin. At the risk of terminal heresy, I would suggest that behind almost every successful mother/politician/CEO is … a very good man.
Palin's full house and career haven't happened without the manly support of one Todd Palin. Real men don't hold their wives back.
The reason Palin so upsets the pro-choice brigade is because she seems so content with her lot and her brood. One can find other reasons to think Palin shouldn't be president, but being a pro-life woman shouldn't be one of them.
Though this is ancient history for me and my generation, some of whom are now welcoming grandchildren into the world, some of the lessons we've learned bear repeating. Chief among them is that many women who have had babies find it harder, if not impossible, to see abortion as nothing more than a "choice" to eliminate an inconvenience.
I fall into this camp, though I've never been able to support reversing Roe v. Wade, which makes me unpopular with nearly everyone. Apart from legal arguments as to whether the Supreme Court ruling was constitutionally appropriate, I'm libertarian-leaning enough to insist that government should have no role in determining what anyone does with his or her body -- as long as no one else is hurt.
Save your "ah-ha's!" until the end, please. Obviously, the forming human life is destroyed, and thus I also can make a human-rights argument against abortion. I think we should.
That other women, such as Palin, want to reframe the abortion debate in new feminist terms, arguing that abortion hurts women and is, therefore, anti-woman, doesn't bother me a bit. And it shouldn't bother older-school feminists.
Equality, after all, means that every woman has a voice.
And that is the bottom line, is it not? For ALL women to have a voice. And this year, it may very well mean having more women's voices in positions of power. That, to me, is exciting. How about you?