Women’s Support for Clinton Rises in Wake of Perceived Sexism
January 10, 2008
If the race wasn’t about gender already, it certainly is now.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has been running for president for nearly a year. But in the past week, women in Iowa mostly rejected her, a few days before women in New Hampshire embraced her. All over the country, viewers scrutinized coverage for signs of chauvinism in the race, and many said they found dismaying examples.
Even Democratic women with no intention of voting for Mrs. Clinton found themselves drawn into the debate and shaken by what briefly seemed like a humiliating end to the most promising female candidacy in American history.
The process seems to have changed a few minds, at least for now.
“I was really pained by the thought that her campaign really was over,” said Amy Rees, a stay-at-home mother in San Francisco who will vote in the California Democratic primary on Feb. 5. “I kept thinking that the truth is, a woman — even a woman of her unquestioned intelligence and preparedness — can’t get even a single primary win. It really stung.”
Ms. Rees had favored Senator Barack Obama of Illinois; now she is thinking of voting for Mrs. Clinton.
Until a few weeks ago, Mrs. Clinton, of New York, hardly seemed like someone in need of defending — from sexism or anything else. She was the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was a Clinton. And as a former first lady, she was a complicated test case for female achievement.
By losing the first presidential contest, Mrs. Clinton may have succeeded in getting more women to see her as she presents herself: not a dominant figure of power, but a woman trying to break what she has called “the highest and hardest glass ceiling" in America.
“I do want Hillary Rodham Clinton to take the White House, but until she lost Iowa, I didn’t realize how much, or how much it had to do with her being a woman,” said Allison Smith-Estelle, 37, director of a program against domestic violence in Red Lodge, Mont.
What bothered them as much as the Iowa results, said several dozen women in states with coming primaries, was the gleeful reaction to her defeat and what seemed like unfair jabs in the final moments before the New Hampshire voting.
Michelle Six, 36, a lawyer and John Edwards supporter in Los Angeles, said she was horrified to hear Mr. Obama tell Mrs. Clinton she was “likable enough” in a Democratic debate on Saturday. Ms. Six said she found the line condescending, and an echo of other unkind remarks by other men about women over the years.
The likability question, initially raised by a moderator, “wouldn’t be coming up if she wasn’t a woman,” she said.
At work, Ms. Six said, she listened to male colleagues make fun of Mrs. Clinton for choking up at a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. “She’s over,” one chortled, Ms. Six said.
With that, Mrs. Clinton “may just have earned my vote,” Ms. Six said, adding, “I don’t know if I was super-conscious” of the gender factor in the race before then.
In New Hampshire, two hecklers yelled at Mrs. Clinton to iron their shirts — stray comments that angered untold numbers of women after the incident was widely reported. And Mrs. Clinton is the only candidate whose critics complain about the pitch of her voice.
For many women, these moments are deeply personal. Though Sarah Kreps, 31, who is moving to New York, said she would vote for Mr. Obama, seeing Mrs. Clinton debate was a reminder of her time in the Air Force, and the discomfort of being the sole woman in a group of men. The criticisms of Mrs. Clinton’s voice took Ms. Rees back to the time her boss pushed the mute button on a conference call to tell her that her voice was too shrill.
Now that Mrs. Clinton has gone from a solid lead to a tie with Mr. Obama in the latest national Gallup poll, some voters are thinking back to incidents that they say now seem suspect to them: the debate in which Mr. Edwards critiqued the bright jacket Mrs. Clinton was wearing, or the one at which Mrs. Clinton was asked, by a woman, if she preferred diamonds or pearls.
Other women mentioned how they were shocked to see how the only female candidate was perceived by some voters. For Jodi Cohen, 31, a recruiter in Orange County, Calif., it was the relative who recently told her that he admired Bill Clinton but would not vote for his wife because she had stayed with her husband after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Priya Chaudhry, 31, a lawyer in New York and a supporter of Mrs. Clinton said she heard that criticism all the time. “They punish the woman who stood by him,” Ms. Chaudhry said, “but forgive the adulterer himself?” Some women said Mrs. Clinton’s teary moment, which many women said they found moving, seemed to bewilder skeptical husbands, sons and male colleagues.
“There’s probably not a working woman over 40 who hasn’t found herself in a similar situation, where her work performance is being questioned or challenged and she feels so strongly about her actions or vision that she wells up,” said Lisa Goff, 48, a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Va. “Hillary handled that moment the way we all hope to, by remaining articulate and not breaking into tears.”
Younger women, however, may look at Mrs. Clinton differently. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic women split by age, with the older ones voting overwhelmingly for Mrs. Clinton, the younger ones for Mr. Obama.
In interviews, some Democratic women over 40, who said they had experienced stinging sexism at school and in the workplace, seemed to long for the election of a female president — they said Mrs. Clinton would fill the role just fine — as a grand moment of validation. But younger women, who have grown up in a world of greater parity, seemed less likely to allow gender to influence their vote.
In some cases, this split is playing out within families. Myra Dinnerstein, 73, a former professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona, said Mrs. Clinton’s setbacks had saddened and angered her. “I used to tell my students that I would never live to see a woman president,” Ms. Dinnerstein said, “and now that there has been a golden opportunity, we are letting it slip away.”
A few hours later, after hearing about Mrs. Clinton’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, Ms. Dinnerstein wrote a celebratory e-mail message: “Hurrah! I think women got as mad as I was, seeing Hillary trashed. I think they realized that ‘the gender thing’ exists.”
But Ms. Dinnerstein’s daughter, Julie Dinnerstein, 39, who works for a nonprofit feminist organization in New York, said she would vote for Mr. Obama in the Feb. 5 primary.
“Senator Clinton’s struggles are not my own, and they are not those of my generation of women,” the younger Ms. Dinnerstein said. “The idea of a woman being president just does not seem to be as powerful or as revolutionary to me as it does to feminists of my mother’s generation.”
But if Mrs. Clinton loses the nomination, would the younger Ms. Dinnerstein be sorry?
Yes, she conceded. “It will upset my mother.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company