Females make up more than half the U.S. population, so a category devoted to women smacks of, well, a separate-but-equal standing. But with two women coming so close to the nation’s two top jobs and others breaking barriers within their own disciplines, acknowledgment is due for the passions that influential females stoked in 2008.
- Angelina Jolie
- Sarah Palin
- Oprah Winfrey
- Hillary Clinton
- Gina Carano
- Tina Fey
- Michelle Obama
- Katie Couric
- Barbara Walters
- Dara Torres
Fate seemed ready to drop-lift Hillary Clinton (who would ditch the Rodham and then even the Clinton in her Democratic campaigning) onto the path to the White House. The former first lady didn’t win her party’s nomination, but she cracked that political ceiling as the first viable female candidate for the Oval Office. The hard-fought contest between Clinton and Barack Obama swelled the searches and the Democratic voter rolls that ultimately helped the party in November. The race cemented the New York senator as her own independent woman.
A place in the history texts was also guaranteed to Sarah Palin (already distinguished as Alaska’s first female and youngest governor) with her appointment as the Republican vice presidential pick. Beauty pageant looks and frontier skills established her as a wildly polarizing character, at once hailed as a conservative savior and disparaged as a drag on the ticket. However, it would be Michelle Obama who would pack her bags to move into the White House. Searchers intently scrutinized her background for her intellectual and social leanings, but both fans and skeptics compared her accomplished elegance to the aristocratic Jackie Kennedy.
Tina Fey returned again to the big screen, but her biggest impact appeared on her old stomping grounds, “Saturday Night Live.” The late-night show’s first female head writer, Fey heralded Clinton’s strengths on a Weekend Update, and her eerie similarity to Palin made multiple return visits inevitable. Among the analysts, Fey has been partly credited with, if not diminishing Palin’s glow, then defining her “political narrative.” She even stood next to John McCain himself the weekend before Election Day, in that strange-bedfellow scenario that political satire makes.
Politics tested the power of Oprah Winfrey, who risked her star-building track record by supporting Barack Obama before the Democratic primaries. Alienated female viewers called her a traitor, while others felt she escorted the Illinois senator into another level of the mainstream. Winfrey witnessed the fruits of her first political sponsorship at Grant Park, weeping on the shoulders of a stranger. The titan even stopped the downward slide of the newspaper industry for one moment by buoying sales of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Katie Couric, disdained for bringing her populist morning approach to the evening news and blamed for CBS’ sinking ratings, came back leading a crusade of female political reporters on the left, right, and center. Couric was recognized for asking Clinton one of the smartest questions of the campaign—why Palin had an action figure and Clinton a nutcracker—and was lauded for her alternative YouTube outlet. Then in Palin’s interview, Couric reminded people once more of her velvet-gloved journalism—always civil, always insistent—and why she deserved the anchor desk’s solo seat. Barbara Walters recapped her history of firsts (including being first female evening news co-anchor) in a biography this year. “The View” co-creator and co-host especially reaped Search activity with the admission of a youthful affair with a married senator.
Heavily pregnant with twins, Angelina Jolie proved to be a fertility goddess (in vitro aside) who could be an avenging fighter onscreen. Perhaps the first crossover action heroine A-lister, she voiced the female tigress in “Kung Fu Panda,” proved the main attraction as the tattooed assassin in “Wanted” (which pulled a higher-per-screen average than the G-rated box-office hit “Wall*E”), and embodied fierce motherhood in Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling.” As for her own motherhood, celebrity tabloids’ false labor accounts convulsed Searchers to seek a peek of Jolie’s offspring. With the latest trend to sell baby photos rather than have paparazzi profit, Jolie and Brad Pitt donated the record $14 million payout to their charitable Jolie/Pitt Foundation. Magazine covers tracked multiple stages of Jolie’s pregnancy, and a W magazine showcase of Pitt’s intimate photos made breastfeeding glamorous.
The Olympics provided ample opportunities for a generation of athletic stars such as the new gymnastic crop and the beach volleyball duo, but it was hard to resist the story of Dara Torres, who already made a record as the oldest female swimmer in the 2000 Olympics (and also kicked off the trend to be the first athlete modeling for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue). Searchers poured over her attempts to be the first and oldest swimmer to make five Olympics. Undefeated kickboxing champ Gina Carano upped her profile in her turn as Crush on “American Gladiators,” then later made television history in the first primetime female fight. The TV venue died within a few months, but Carano’s appeal proved she was unstoppable…like so many other women in 2008.