Voting for the first time, 19-year-old Erika Bowman was beaming as she walked out of the voting booth at Glen Burnie Park Elementary. Her presidential pick was Sen. Barack Obama, but the months-long election cycle instilled in her a larger sense of promise.
Women candidates played big roles in the presidential race this year, as Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly missed out on the Democratic Party's nomination and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the first female to appear on the Republican ticket.
"It does inspire me," said Bowman, a student at Anne Arundel Community College. "I'm very interested in politics, and I hope that maybe one day ... who knows?"
With Obama's win over Sen. John McCain yesterday, Palin's bid for the vice presidency ended similarly to Clinton's run for the White House: just short. But even in defeat, both politicians made unprecedented strides for the nation's highest offices.
Political observers will now watch closely to see if this election cycle proves to be an anomaly or a jumping-off point for women seeking higher office.
"Is it time we regularly see women on the ticket? Absolutely," said Karen O'Connor, director of the Woman and Politics Institute at American University. But she notes that both Clinton and Palin were unique candidates in a unique race. "I think it's going to take a while before we have a large enough candidate base," she said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, was a Clinton supporter in the primary. "Hats off to Senator Clinton," she said yesterday. "She did crack that highest glass ceiling with 18 million votes. ... There will be another time when a woman is able to pursue this."
Maryland voters at the polls seemed particularly cognizant of the historical impact Clinton and Palin have made on American politics.
"People talk about this being a post-racial election. I think it's post-gender, too," said Alexandra Gudger, 64, after voting.
While many said they've spent a lifetime wondering how close a woman could come to the Oval Office, other voters seemed to view gender as a footnote.
"Now that it's happened, it's like, how was it ever any other way?" said Melissa Johanson, 39. "Why did it take so long, and why did anyone ever think it'd be that big a deal?"
While many had grown accustomed to seeing a woman on the campaign trail this past year, on a historical timeline, great strides appear to have been made, said Erika Falk, author of Women for President. For her book, Falk analyzed the campaigns of the eight women who'd sought the presidency prior to Clinton. In studying coverage of the campaigns and identifying signs of bias, Falk said from Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, "the trend lines were absolutely flat; there was no indication of improvement."
"Clinton's campaign was covered much more seriously by the mainstream press than any of the women who came before her," said Falk, associate program chair for the communications master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University. "There wasn't progress in every area, but I think because she was a front-runner, it was hard for the press to cast her as a typical woman or a token candidate."
Falk is updating her book with details from Clinton's run, having found that media descriptions of Clinton relied less on physical description than those of previous women candidates. Her research did not take into account Palin's inclusion on the Republican ticket. Both Palin and Sen. John McCain repeatedly complained about her treatment in the press.
According to a recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization run out of George Mason University, televised comments and coverage of Palin were positive only 42 percent of the time, which was more than McCain (36 percent) but less than Obama (65 percent).
Recent polling suggests that Palin's nomination might have actually hurt McCain at the polls. When she was named to the ticket prior to the Republican National Convention, Palin stirred excitement in the party, especially among social conservatives and evangelicals. But a poll by Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Palin; only 44 percent had a favorable view.
Regardless of those numbers, O'Connor says, Tuesday's election has blazed a trail for future presidential campaigns. In fact, she suspects Palin is already preparing for a run in four years. And many others might be dreaming about a run further down the line.
"Hillary Clinton made little girls know they could make a serious run," O'Connor says, "that they could be taken seriously as a presidential candidate."