This year began with women holding commanding leads in races to become the next mayor of America's two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles.
It was "hers to lose," the chattering class said of Wendy Greuel, former L.A. city controller and president pro tem of the Los Angeles City Council.
It was "hers to lose," the chattering class said of Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council.
And then they both lost.
No one is saying that they lost "because" of their gender.
But the reality that these two women — both experienced and talented enough to be leading in early polls — both lost decisively, that neither city has ever had a woman mayor, and that of America's 10 largest cities, only Houston has a woman mayor raises hard questions about the glass ceiling that still exists in politics (and in corporate America when top executive positions are at issue).
This much is clear: Being female didn't help either Quinn or Greuel. There was no gender gap in New York. African-Americans tend to vote for credible African-American candidates; Jews for Jewish candidates. Ethnic groups overwhelmingly support their own. But women?
In fairness, neither Greuel nor Quinn made "gender" the focus of their campaigns — at least not until the closing days when they were losing and the appeal to "make history" was a Hail Mary pass that didn't connect.
In Los Angeles, some criticized Greuel for not focusing on "making history" earlier on, although I can promise you that if she had, she would have been criticized for running on her gender and not on her record. Ditto for Quinn.
And so it goes.
Quinn, according to press reports and accounts from friends and colleagues, was resistant to advice to "soften" her tough image, although that didn't stop voters from describing her to pollsters and reporters as being too "ambitious" and "bossy" and even just "too masculine."
Many of her own supporters worried that she didn't dress well enough. On the other hand, for decades, women thinner than Quinn and better dressed have faced the familiar criticism that they aren't tough enough or assertive enough and that they are too feminine.
Those who study (or struggle as) women in corporate America are all too familiar with this particular vise: how to be feminine but not too girly, assertive but not too aggressive, in charge but not too "bossy." As Gloria Steinem put it, "If you're tough enough to run New York City, you're too tough to be considered acceptably feminine."
Something needs to change.
Both Greuel and Quinn emphasized, in losing, that they hoped their candidacies would at least send a message to young girls that they could dream of holding high office. "This may not be the outcome you wanted, but there's a young girl out there who was inspired by the thought of New York's first woman mayor," Quinn said in her concession speech.
That was a great thought back in 1984, when young girls could — we hoped — take from Geraldine Ferraro's historic run the thought that someday a woman might be vice president. But the young girls of 1984 are now grown women, and what's so troubling is not how much has changed, but how little.
I know many women are insulted by the idea that they should vote for a candidate because she is a woman. Not me. If it's considered perfectly acceptable, understandable and appropriate for Italians to support Italians and Jews to support Jews and Hispanics to support Hispanics, what is so wrong, so unacceptable, so inappropriate about women supporting other women?
No, we're not a discrete and insular minority. We're a majority — but only in numbers, not in power. And the only way we will get more power is by supporting one another.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.