Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2010-09-24


That so many women are “getting in the arena, being engaged and mattering” during this campaign year would make the early suffragists proud, political writer and commentator Eleanor Clift told a Samford University audience Sept. 22.

The presence of viable women candidates in many gubernatorial and U.S. senate races around the nation is a far cry from the early suffragists’ struggles described by Clift in her talk, “Women in Politics: From Suffrage to Shattering the Glass Ceiling.”

Even after women voted for the first time in 1920, Clift said, it was assumed for a long time that they would vote like their husbands, or that their vote would simply cancel out their spouse’s. Things began to change with the “gender gap” in 1980 and the “year of the woman” in 1992, when the first major influx of women, mostly Democrats, won elections.

This year’s label, “the Palin effect,” reflects the endorsements that former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has given to female candidates, said Clift, a longtime observer and writer about the Washington power structure and the influence of women in politics.

A contributing editor of Newsweek magazine since 1994, Clift appears as a regular panelist on the syndicated talk show, The McLaughlin Group. Her column, “Capitol Letter,” is posted each Friday on Her books include Founding Sisters and the 19th Amendment and Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling. 

Dubbed “Mama Grizzlies,” the Palin-endorsed campaign hopefuls include Delaware senate contender Christine O’Donnell. “She looks like a young version of Palin, and the media is taken with her,” Clift said of O’Donnell, adding that although some parts of her history make Republicans uneasy about her, “They need Delaware.”

Republicans also have female nominees in senate races in New Hampshire, Connecticut, California and Nevada.  GOP contenders for governorships are headlined by California’s Meg Whitman, who has spent $129 million of her own money in the race against Democrat Jerry Brown, said Clift.

There is no doubting Palin’s impact, said Clift, who finds no comparable “queen or king maker” on the Democratic side and sees Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as too controversial for that role. “I don’t see a Pelosi effect,” said Clift.

Former Democrat presidential candidate Hilary Clinton is off the playing field as an endorser because of her position as Secretary of State, though Clift notes that Clinton is getting rave reviews for her diplomatic work, including her attempts to bring peace to the Middle East.

One future scenario involving Clinton, said Clift, has president Barack Obama switching roles for her and vice president Joe Biden.  Given that a president likes to set up his successor through the vice presidency, such an arrangement would position Clinton for that to happen.

“It’s something to think about,” said Clift, noting  Biden’s previous service as chair of the senate foreign relations committee and the fact that he “would love to be secretary of state.” And while Clift said she doubts that Clinton would ever challenge Obama, “I think she still wants to be president.”

The nation won’t know until election day what effect Palin’s endorsements will have on voters, said Clift. “But we’re seeing her influence shaping the field. It is interesting to see her turn every deficit to her advantage.”

Clift’s lecture was part of the continuing series of A. Gerow Hodges Lectures in Ethics and Leadership hosted by Samford’s Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership.

Clift was at Samford Sept. 20-22 as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a program of the Council of Independent Colleges that brings prominent artists, diplomats, journalists, business leaders and other professionals to college campuses across the U.S. She spoke to a variety of Samford classes and seminars during her visit. 

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.