Chelsea Clinton, Christine Quinn and Sandra Fluke look forward, in different ways

The panelists after the debate. (Dan Rosenblum)
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It's been more than 30 years since women began to vote in greater numbers than men in presidential elections, and four since Hillary Clinton almost became the Democratic nominee for president. 

But of course Hillary didn't make it, and it's going to be at least another four years before a woman is nominated by either of the major parties.

“We’re either not having the right conversation,” moderator Chelsea Clinton told the seven-woman panel and a full audience last night at the 92nd Street Y, "or we’re not being heard loudly enough, whether we’re running in heels, or flats or boots.”

That was in fact a reference to the title of the night's program (“Running in Heels”) which was meant to examine why the United States is in a league with Turkmenistan when it comes to the proportion of women in high-ranking government positions.

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Clinton, who campaigned for her mother in 2008, noted that there are six women in the presidential cabinet, and that they constituted more than 15 percent of the total number of women who had ever served in any presidential cabinets, ever. (“I do have a personal favorite,” she joked, referring, presumably, to the current Secretary of State.)

Among the panelists were Amy Holmes and Nicolle Wallace, who worked for former senator Bill Frist and former president George W. Bush, respectively, before becoming political commentators. Other participants were Abby Huntsman Livingston, the daughter of former Utah governor and recent presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and Stephanie Schriock the president of EMILY’s List.

The biggest applause was reserved for Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law student who was attacked as a "slut" by Rush Limbaugh for her congressional testimony in favor employer-funded contraception.

Also participating was New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose position as the possible first gay and first female mayor of New York has attracted profile assignments from The New Yorker and Elle.

(Quinn’s presence drew about a dozen protestors outside the event, who said she sold out her constituency. Inside, retired psychologist Emily Nussdorf inside, who wore a Hillary Clinton hat and shirt, decried the loss of St. Vincent’s Hospital and said, as she handed out fliers to the press, “It's not enough to have gender, you have to have the right politics.")

“She and I actually have something in common,” Chelsea Clinton said, referring to Sandra Fluke, who sat four seats to her left. “We both have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh. I do also believe that if you have the right type of enemies, it’s easier doing something. She was 30, I was 13.”

Chelsea recounted Limbaugh calling her the “White House dog” in the 1990s, and said she’d thankfully been raised in an environment that gave her thick skin, and congratulated Fluke for her dignified response.

“One of the things that I was really concerned about when the verbal attacks began was what kind of a message is this going to send to very young women and pre-teens and young girls,” Fluke said. “And they would think, ‘well clearly I should sit down and shut up, because I speak out, that’s what happens. If I step into the public light, that’s what happens.’”

The shadow of Hillary Clinton loomed large, and not just because of Chelsea.

Wallace, who was communications director for George W. Bush and a campaign adviser to John McCain in 2008, said some women were traumatized by seeing Clinton lose the Democratic primary. She said she was so “scarred” by 2008, she began to write novels in which a moderate female from California became president.

“Now we’re playing in a much smaller field," Wallace said. "Might Mitt Romney, if he even makes a glimpse of the finish line, might he or might he not pick a woman? That is so far behind where we were four years ago. I don’t mean to be grim, but I think the reality is, we don’t go forward until we unpack and we litigate four years ago.”

Schriock countered Wallace’s view.

“Where are the women?” she said. “I’ll tell you, they’re running for office right now in 2012."

She named a number of candidates including marquis Democratic Senate contender Elizabeth Warren, and she pointed to Queens congressional candidate Grace Meng, who sat in the crowd.

Quinn seemed more inclined toward that less introspective, more pragmatic view: She said that while the numbers were low for the city (there are 18 women on the 51-member Council) she saw no reason that women couldn't hold more power. 

“The most important thing is that you have to actually win,” Quinn said. “And that is old-school, you know what I mean? It’s raising money, it’s turning people out, it’s identifying the voters, it’s helping with the petitions, it’s using whatever skills we have in a campaign context to get them elected.”

After Wallace recalled being surprised that reporters had asked Sarah Palin how she could run for vice president and be a mother at the same time, Quinn was asked how she was navigating the work-family balance as she prepares to marry her longtime partner Kim Catullo.

“Not that well,” Quinn said. "It's hard, you know, it's really hard.”

“There are always going to be times when for x period of time, I am not going to be engaged in my work,” she said. “And I feel bad during those periods of time because I feel like, what if something happened? What if I missed something? What if somebody needed help? What if they had to hear from me in that half an hour? But on the other hand, if in that three-hour period you're not with your family or I'm not with my partner, than you feel bad about that. On some level you accept that, this could be Irish Catholic guilt, too, you're gonna feel a little bad all the time."

Wallace said women ought to be concerned about the nature of recent cultural battles over abortion and contraception, which are best led by people making persuasive arguments, not “hard-edged angry white men debating contraception.” (She was referring to Rep. Darrel Issa’s recent all-male congressional panel.)

“The people who win culture debates are the cultural peacemakers, not the culture warriors,” she said. “And I think it felt to pro-life men and women that the guns and the swords came out again. And that’s not how you do it.”

Wallace said women made better secretaries of state because of their willingness to negotiate.

Huntsman Livingston said as the Obama administration's ambassador to China, her father would always make sure her mother was present for important negotiations.

“She would honestly go with him to every dinner party or event that he had,” she said. “She kind of brought that balance and that warmth and that temperament that was needed. And that’s why I think you see the candidate’s wife speaking out so much right now is because they bring that perspective and that temperament that is maybe missing.”

“Let me just tell you that’s true straight or gay," Quinn said. "My toughest dinners, Kim is required to come. And the mayor likes her way better than me.”

Then Fluke, suggesting that she might be the group’s “troublemaker,” said that although women are different than men, it's hard to generalize. 

“I think we have to be careful when we talk about that women should run for office because 'women are special in this way, they’ll do things differently,'" she said. "Because I think that also limits us, right? That says all women are like x and not like y. And if we’re going to get to a female secretary of defense, we may need to be careful about talking about how collaborative, emotional and fabulous we are in those ways. Because women can also be tough.”

“It’s not mutually exclusive,” Quinn said.

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