Where Are the Other Female Presidential Contenders?

Sports metaphors usually bug me, not because they're macho, but because they're lazy. But throughout this primary season, there is one I've been unable to avoid: the bench.

What women are sitting on the sidelines, prepared to jump into the game and become the first female president if Hillary Clinton doesn't make it? And, if she does, who is stretching out, ready to spell her when her playing time is done?

There are a few names that quickly come to the minds of believing Democrats, like popular governors Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Sebelius, whose father was governor of Ohio, is especially appealing, and her picture in the February issue of Vogue, decked out in de la Renta, with Sarah Palin, the beauty queen-turned-Republican governor of Alaska, will bring even more attention.

But after that? The California trio of Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are all stars in their own right, but not quite top-of-the-ticket national candidates. Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta? Maybe. The movement to change the Constitution to make Canadian-born Jennifer Granholm, governor of Michigan -- and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- eligible seems to have run out of steam, a bit like the state's economy.

"You always wish that a bench like this were deeper, when there's been only one woman candidate in the last three presidential elections," says Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project. Having just one woman in a race presents its own problems, Wilson says, pointing to how Clinton has been forced to position herself, explain herself, and defend herself along a tough-to-feminine spectrum that wouldn't be an issue if there were other female candidates.

But the thin bench also explains a kind of desperation among some of Clinton's most strident supporters, those older feminists who see her as the first -- and, more importantly, maybe the last -- chance in their active political lives to send a woman to the Oval Office.

For these women, that struggle has been all about Clinton for a very long time. Some in this circle trace their support for a second President Clinton to her appearance, as first lady, at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where she pushed the diplomatic envelope, declaring: "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." NOW's PAC cited Clinton's Beijing statement when it endorsed her on Jan. 2.

Wilson says that the idea of making Hillary Clinton the first female president was on the minds of many of the women who joined with her in 1998 to launch The White House Project.

The notion simmered for years, made stronger by her election, and re-election, to the Senate. It was inescapable last March, when Ellen Malcolm used the Emily's List annual luncheon to show just how serious she was about devoting her group's resources to the cause of election Clinton. (A somber video, portraying the 2009 presidential inauguration, with a woman -- in a deep red wool jacket and blonde coiffe -- taking the oath, was a bit of overkill. "This time, for the very first time in American history, the words will be spoken, Madam President.")

Emily’s List is built on the idea that women's support is key to promoting women as candidates. But, while Gloria Steinem tried to reprise that argument this week in a New York Times, it’s not taken as given by many younger women. Yet it may help explain why women over 65 who attended the Iowa caucuses threw their support solidly to Clinton.

After Clinton lost her air of inevitability in Iowa -- and "found her voice" in New Hampshire -- she broadened her support among women, who made up a stunning 57 percent of Tuesday's primary voters. But simply marshalling women's support doesn't fill the bench behind her, at least not yet.

"We are so accustomed to looking for the messiah and looking for one person," says Wilson, who instead argues that the way to make lasting change is to elect a set of women at all levels of government.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, says the most effective place to build the bench is in state legislatures. But there, the number of women running has been stagnant over the last decade. After steady growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and crossing the 20 percent line after 1992, "the year of the woman" in the U.S. Senate, women last year made up 23.5 percent of state legislators.

"We just don't have as many women as we would all like to see in elective office and when it really shows up is when you're thinking about going for these really high levels of office," Walsh says.

Of course, building a bench takes more than boosting the number of women serving in state capitols. Being a viable national female candidate requires the same magical combination required of the male candidates, and perhaps more. That means coming from the right kind of state (not too tiny, not too liberal, etc) and the right place in one’s party, although, as this year’s GOP contest shows, that can be a bit of a moving target. Making the squad requires experience on serious issues (immigration is good, foreign affairs and the military are a plus), and a national network ready and able to raise millions. Oh, and good looks, a nice family, ambition -- and stamina.

Asked to name women who might be among the next to run for the White House, Walsh points to Sebelius and Napolitano. She hesitates, then mentions Amy Klobuchar, the first-term senator from Minnesota. A newcomer and not too well known, but the same was said, until recently, about Barack Obama.

She has a harder time on the Republican side. The Maine senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, come to mind, but she quickly dismisses them as too moderate for their own party.

But Walsh, Wilson, and plenty of others agree that, whatever the outcome of this year's presidential contest, Clinton will have gone a long way to erasing doubts that a woman could be elected president in the United States.

"I think it's been a breakthrough to watch this campaign and see her being taken seriously as a candidate," says Wilson. Her early frontrunner status, her lead in national polls, her victory in New Hampshire -- all unprecedented for a woman, and sure to encourage others.

"There is no deep bench," says Wilson. "But what you have is the platonic ideal of the bench. People are going to build it."