Quick, pop quiz: Where does the United States rank on female participation in government? In the top ten? In the top 20? In the top 50?
Answer: America ranks somewhere around #71 worldwide, below Pakistan and Cuba, when it comes to the share of women in political office (in the US Congress, it's less than 17 percent).
That statistic tells just part of the story. At one time, Margaret Thatcher seemed to be the rare example of a female head of state, the isolated exception to the worldwide rule of male-dominated law. Now there are numerous women running countries -- from Angela Merkel (Germany) to Michelle Bachelet (Chile) to Cristina Kirchner (Argentina) to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) to Luisa Dias Diogo (Mozambique) along with a handful of others.
Many places -- except the United States, where two women seeking national office lost in 2008 and the only woman even mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2012 is Sarah Palin, with what appears to be a difficult road ahead if she decides to run, which is far from certain.
Is it really that much easier elsewhere? And does the U.S. even care about electing women, to the presidency or Congress or any other office? Is that very question some sort of politically correct throwback?
In sitting down to write "Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win," my goal was to chronicle what we saw women do and experience as candidates in the 2008 presidential election, and to try to assess what lessons could be drawn for future US campaigns. It did not seem wise, at least initially, too extrapolate too much from foreign elections. Other countries have quotas, and parliamentary systems, providing a glide path for women to rise in their parties' ranks. We run things differently here, prizing rugged individualism, and anyway we're a young country on a learning curve. Perhaps, as I heard time and again, the "right woman" just hadn't come along in America yet.
Then, too, I heard from academics who study comparative politics and have reached the conclusion that having women in office makes little difference in terms of policies. Women are no less hawkish than men on foreign policy, they told me, and sometimes pay less attention to domestic issues because they're overcompensating -- fearful of looking like head of the "Mommy party."
Still, two foreign examples were intriguing, and seemed potentially relevant here: that of Sirleaf, of Liberia, and Johanna Sigurdardottir, the newly elected prime minister of Iceland.
In both Liberia and Iceland, women recently won for the first time after years of terrible missteps by male leaders. Sirleaf campaigned both on her experience and her womanhood in a country torn apart by civil war. Everywhere her pollster (an American) went throughout Liberia, he said he heard the same thing from voters: "Men are too violent, too prone to make war," or "Men have failed us."
Iceland was much the same story, with voters booting out male leaders in favor of the first lesbian head of state anywhere in the world -- in the wake of the country's economic collapse after the worldwide fiscal meltdown. "Iceland's women are blaming men for the financial crisis that has brought the country to its knees," Der Spiegel, the German newspaper, wrote last April. "They are now looking for a female solution to clean up the mess."
Hillary Clinton made a similar case during her 2008 bid, but often invoked her husband in the process, saying it took "a Clinton to clean up after a Bush." In the runup to her ascendance in 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was much more explicit about feminine virtues, essentially arguing in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandals that it takes "a woman to clean out the House."
But by and large the virtuous woman argument has not taken off in the United States as it has elsewhere. Nor do most voters seem even aware of the #71 ranking for the United States, which came from the Inter-Parliamentary Union in late November of 2009. In fact, when it comes to women in politics, having Hillary Clinton out of the running means the global discussion has mostly shifted to other countries. As one expert, Aili Mari Tripp of the University of Wisconsin Madison, put it, most Americans "don't seem to realize that we're not part of the discussion at all."