via iStock Photo/Sean Locke

Women candidates for president or vice president have been far and few between in our lifetimes. Until 2008, to see any woman on a national ticket, regardless of party, was a rarity.  Sure, there were a couple of famous exceptions like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun.  But it’s pretty well accepted that the first viable run for the White House by a woman was when now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought the 2008 Democratic nomination.  As for the vice presidential slot, the major parties have each had exactly one woman nominee — Geraldine Ferraro for the Democrats in 1984 and Sarah Palin for the GOP in 2008.

Fast forward to the 2012 race and Palin is finally, officially, out after months of teasing voters with her maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won’t-bus-tour.  GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is still in, but her poll numbers suggest she won’t be for long.  And while she has repeatedly said she won’t, plenty of Hillary fans hope she’ll change her mind and give President Obama a run for his money.  So with women candidates on our minds now more than ever before in our history, have the 21st century candidacies of Clinton, Palin and Bachmann created a new segment of women voters – ones who will turn away from political races that don’t include a woman?

Studies have shown that women traditionally participate less in politics – both in running for office, as well as in discussing the candidates – than men.  The interest of women and girls of all ages in attending political speeches or volunteering for candidates seemed, at least anecdotally, to be super-charged by the presence of strong, focused women on the tickets three years ago.  Throngs of mothers with little girls turned out just to see Palin on the campaign trail.  Mothers of Hillary-loving daughters became first time campaign volunteers because their girls were so excited about the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy.  So in a 2012 race that looks like it will soon have no estrogen, what happens to the engagement and excitement of women voters?

While I don’t think women will ignore the next presidential race, I suspect many will feel less invested in the outcome if the race is filled with a sea of men.

So with the GOP frontrunner status being a moving target, having shifted from Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Ron Paul, and the knowledge that women make up the majority of voters, keeping women interested will be the key winning the GOP nomination in 2012.  As for the Democrats, some observers believe that women voters are still licking their political wounds in light of President Obama’s win over Clinton and that progressive women will, at the very least, decamp from the Obama ranks for someone else.  All of this is hard to predict with more than a year to go before Election Day 2012.  But one thing is certain – no one can win without the women’s vote, so whoever really wants to be living in the White House on January 21, 2013, had better find a way to effectively engage them so they don’t focus on the fact that there’s no one at the debates wearing heels and hose.

Unless Betty White really is in the race.  Now there’s a candidate I could support!

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