Quindlen: Still Stuck In 2nd

I once had a boss who would praise any woman he considered particularly promising by saying that someday she could be managing editor. He thought this was a big deal; at the time no woman had come close to a job that elevated. The only problem was that managing editor was the No. 2 job, and it was hard to believe that anyone would tell a guy that he was such a star that he might rocket to the second spot. One crazy day I said that. My boss looked at me as though I had lost my mind because I'd spoken it. Lack of gratitude, sense of entitlement—that's what he was thinking.

I've been flashing back to that episode the last few months, considering how, even with the best intentions, male is still the universal default setting. Here's the drumbeat—Hillary Rodham Clinton is a strange test case for a what-if we women have been rehearsing for decades. What would be the chances that the most significant run for the presidency by a woman would be made by someone with more baggage than a ball team headed to an away game: a former First Lady, married to one of the most polarizing political figures in modern American history, who had suffered the public humiliation of his sexual perfidy? What would be the chances that she would survive all that to enter the Senate, then to mount what all believed would be a cakewalk to the Democratic nomination, only to be parried, not by the right wing or entrenched bigotry but by youth and eloquence and a colleague who symbolized a newer new America than she did?

But just because all this makes it difficult to parse the double standard surrounding Senator Clinton's candidacy doesn't mean the double standard no longer exists, or shouldn't be acknowledged. There may be many reasons apart from her gender—past, positions, personality—that have led people to turn away. But there has also been an inescapable undercurrent of bias. It's summed up in the word "calculating," which is often used to describe the senator in as witchy a way possible. There is no male politico equivalent for "calculating," except perhaps "business as usual."

Consider the guys who yelled "Iron my shirts!" at a Clinton event in New Hampshire. The point wasn't the yahoos with the Neanderthal mantra; it was that their jeers got little coverage. If someone at an Obama rally had called out a similar remark based on racial bigotry—"Shine my shoes," perhaps—not only would it have been a story, it would have run on page one.

And there was that moment when someone asked Sen. John McCain, "How are we going to beat the bitch?" McCain may be the father of daughters, but to his shame, he did not protest. Even the prototypical new man, Senator Obama, had his moments, accusing Senator Clinton of attacking him "when she's feeling down," making opposition sound like shoe shopping. Imagine Obama using that turn of phrase against McCain. You just can't.

We've moved past the smarmy jokes about PMS and nuclear weapons. In fact, we've moved almost effortlessly to a moment when a woman contender can be seen as the entrenched insider despite her gender. One narrative has been that with Obama in the race, Clinton has found it impossible to exemplify change despite the historic nature of her candidacy. Another is that he has actually outwomanned her, that while she felt the need to prove muscle and mettle, he has been making human connections. Here's the deal: that's because he could afford to. A male candidate owns all the guy stuff simply by virtue of his birth; he can then go on to show that he's caring and communitarian.

But Senator Clinton has not only had to prove she is strong enough to be commander in chief, she has had to prove she is soft enough to feel your pain. For a man in a position of leadership to be sure and sympathetic is a bonus; for a woman it's base line. When Michelle Obama talked of how she had taken to the campaign trail and left her two girls in the care of their grandmother it was seen as praiseworthy, a woman helping her husband realize his dreams. But if Michelle Obama were away from her children pursuing her own political ambitions, I can guarantee a spate of articles about whether that was bad for the kids.

Attacking this persistent pernicious nuance isn't victim politics of years past. It's important for the future. There aren't that many wonderful people running for elective office in America; if you need reminding, take a look at some members of the Senate. And if half the available candidates are held to some unexamined standard in which ambition is considered a pejorative and a loud voice a turnoff, that deficit will persist. Make no mistake about it: if we're going to continue to have elections that excite and engage, we need the women.

Exemplary husband, perfect kids, no negatives—I guess you could argue that the double standard guarantees that female candidates are stellar since they are required to be all things to all people. It was a woman politician, the mayor of Ottawa, who is responsible for one of the most notable quotes about this: "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult." It may be an era of change, but Charlotte Whitton's 1963 comment still rings true. I've just always thought she was a little too sanguine about the math.