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The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency

Ellen Fitzpatrick (2016), The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
318pp., ISBN: 978-0-674-08893-1

Joshua Specht, Faculty of Arts, Monash University

In November 2016 American voters will choose between two of the most disliked presidential candidates in history. With his penchant for abrasive language and a message of national catastrophe, the antipathy towards Republican nominee Donald Trump's is unsurprising. The aversion to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is more mysterious; although she is influenced by a number of policy positions, it often boils down to questions about her relatability and likeability. These questions are fundamentally gendered: voters have male-centric beliefs about how candidates should behave. Pundits and politicians have questioned Clinton's stamina, appearance and whether she looks 'presidential'. The question of the election is whether Hillary Clinton can break what she famously dubbed 'the highest glass ceiling'. If she does, it will be one part of a longer historical process that historian Ellen Fitzpatrick describes in The Highest Glass Ceiling.

Fitzpatrick's book explores how 'women's quest for the American presidency has a rich history – one marked by ambition and failure, doubt and possibility' (p. 4). She examines the cases of three women who ran for president – Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm – to understand gender and the American presidency. Victoria Woodhull, a businesswoman, spiritualist and feminist, ran for president in 1872, a time when women could not vote in most of the United States. Margaret Chase Smith began her career as a political spouse, but with her dying husband's support received a kind of 'widow's mandate' that 'blended sentimentality, practicality, and realpolitik in equal measures' (p. 79). Her independent political career would ultimately surpass that of her husband. Shirley Chisholm was an African American woman whose uncompromising politics and 1972 presidential campaign made her exceptional in a variety of ways. Finally, the epilogue examines Hillary Clinton's in-progress presidential campaign. Fitzpatrick's book provides the reader with an understanding not simply of the role of gender in presidential campaigns, but also the nature of the presidency.

The strongest portions of the book are the chapter on Shirley Chisholm and the epilogue on Hillary Clinton. The Chisholm discussion underscores intersectionality in American politics; Chisholm 'would not 'choose' between being a woman or being African American, between feminism and the black struggle' (p. 193). This approach was not without risk. Beyond the scepticism of white male voters, it left her open to criticism from women and African Americans. Though Chisholm faced two ceilings, it was at times a source of political strength. Indeed, there is a sense that because Chisholm was given 'little assistance and less encouragement by those who distributed money and wielded power', (p. 186) she could embrace a radical politics rarely seen in the presidential mainstream.

The epilogue has an energy that builds on the earlier discussion to provide a historically grounded analysis of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. I found the overview of Clinton's career particularly valuable; it revealed how her apparent limitations as a candidate were in part the consequence of adjustments and sacrifices she had to make during a career in a male-dominated political world. This analysis implicates the electorate as a whole in the sexism of presidential politics.

In places, the book is unfocused and the analysis is unclear. The discussion of Victoria Woodhull has a lot of exciting grist, including political scandal, séances, and more, but the story falls a bit flat and leaves the reader unclear on the central point. Similarly, the discussion of Margaret Chase Smith is more an overview of her political career than an analysis of gender and presidential politics. I wish the author had more clearly highlighted the book's larger picture.

In the epilogue, Fitzpatrick re-examines the history of women seeking the presidency to ask what has changed since Victoria Woodhull's 1872 campaign. The answer is 'everything and nothing' (p. 227). Though women participate broadly in politics today, the presidency remains deeply gendered, and female candidates face public scepticism about their mannerisms and capabilities. Meanwhile, party officials remain wary of dedicating precious campaign funds to candidates seen as unelectable (itself a deeply gendered assumption). It is only a matter of time before we know whether Hillary Clinton will be the first person to overcome these challenges.

Karmila Thomas, Politics and Sociology, University of Warwick

'Someone once said that women will begin to go places politically … when they were able to beat men at their own game' (p. 114). In a field where the odds are stacked against anyone outside of the status quo, playing the game of politics is a struggle taken on by very few – and won by even fewer. Hillary Clinton's 2008 and 2016 campaigns for the presidency of the United States were the most recent efforts to get a woman into the White House. In light of this, Ellen Fitzpatrick's newest book reflects on three women who paved the way for Clinton only to fall into the backdrop of American political history.

The Highest Glass Ceiling follows the careers of three women who dared to strive for the American presidency, and asks why they, and others, did not succeed. The book dedicates a chapter each to Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm, with a preface and also an epilogue about Hillary Clinton. In the midst of feminism dominating modern discourse, Fitzpatrick deepens the discussion by shedding light on how feminism should fundamentally be approached. Victoria Woodhull fought for feminism by succeeding in roles only meant for men. Margaret Chase Smith steered herself away from being known as a feminist for fear of the implication that she 'cared more about women' (p. 91). Shirley Chisholm did not intend to allow gender to be a factor in her presidential campaign. In contrast, Hillary Clinton replies to misogynist comments by wittingly saying 'Oh! The remnants of sexism – alive and well' (p. 2). Fitzpatrick questions readers on how gender equality should be tackled. Should sexists be looked in the eye and called out for their injustice? Or should women silently climb to the top and let their example pave the way for others to follow? Despite subtly raising the thought, Fitzpatrick fails to offer an assertive opinion on this dilemma, though highlighting the approach of four influential women allow readers to reflect on their own ideas on the matter.

Additionally, the author brilliantly highlights public opinion towards women in American politics. A light was shining through a crack in the glass ceiling by the time Clinton began her campaign (p. 226), a light that took over a century to bleed through. The New York Times is quoted as saying that Clinton's assertive First Lady role was 'a test of the national psyche' (p. 238), but Fitzpatrick displays how every woman's assertiveness in politics was a psychological test for the nation. For instance, the suffragettes fighting during Woodhull's era faced a frustrating time where the abolishment of slavery had rightly been achieved, yet there was still public hostility towards women's rights. A great quote in the book is Elizabeth Cady Stanton saying that 'a 'white man's government' … had now become 'a man's government'' (p. 20). Though if America's psychological default was, and is, to bar women from politics then Fitzpatrick's pitfall is not commentating on this in much depth. An emphasis on a broken societal mentality would have been a valuable addition to scholarly debate. Nevertheless, the book shows that with every attempt by a woman to rule politics, the American public softened to the idea of a female president.

The USA does not have any legal barriers forbidding women from succeeding in the White House, though, as illogical as it is, a 'glass ceiling' above women exists. One explanation for this has been the idea that the media portrays women as unfit to lead a nation (Falk, E. (2010) Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns , University of Illinois Press). Fitzpatrick understands the media's role in a campaign by using journalistic commentary to display the public's sentiment. She writes about the Herald's opinion on Woodhull (p. 36), and political reporter Mary McGrory's comments on Chase Smith (p. 124); however, she does not conclude that the media is the main reason why there has not been a female president.

Fitzpatrick's conclusion is much more bold. She writes that 'financing remained the insurmountable hurdle to a presidential run' (p. 227), stating that women fail to get as many donations as men. Suggesting that the financial consequences of campaigning limit a candidate's success not only explains why females have not triumphed but also implies the struggle that minorities face. It leaves readers questioning the entire campaigning system on which the United States electoral process is built. A door is opened in people's minds to think about how politicians get where they are, as opposed to just thinking about the politicians that are already there. Moreover, Fitzpatrick leaves a lasting thought on academic communities about the credibility of America's money-minded society. It is very rare for an idea on feminism to relate to the wider political and economic make up of a society, but Fitzpatrick's ideas daringly do. As a result, her book is a must-read for all those who want their known to be challenged.


To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Specht, J OR Thomas, K. (2016), Ellen Fitzpatrick (2016), The Highest Glass Ceiling:
Women's Quest for the American Presidency, Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 9, Issue 2,
https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/reinvention/archive/volume9issue2/fitzpatrick Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any
teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal@warwick.ac.uk.