Archive for Sunday, June 8, 2008

Women reflect on coming so close

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, greets supporters Saturday at the National Building Museum in Washington. Clinton ended her campaign for president Saturday.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, greets supporters Saturday at the National Building Museum in Washington. Clinton ended her campaign for president Saturday.

June 8, 2008

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Susie Wilson has spent hours each day calling strangers, all over the country, to ask them to vote for Hillary Clinton. She traveled to three states, knocking door-to-door. In Lancaster, Pa., she stood on a street corner with her sign: Honk for Hillary. And they did.

Susie Wilson is 78 years old. The odds of her working in another campaign to put a woman in the White House are "slim to none," she says. So Saturday, as Clinton brings the longest and most successful such effort ever by an American woman to its not-successful-enough close, Susie Wilson and others like her are wondering.

Did Clinton's roller coaster ride from inevitable nominee to indebted also-ran shatter stereotypes that had long kept women from the height of American politics, or not? Did the insults that accompanied her run - the shouts of "Iron my shirt," the Hillary nutcracker, the mocking T-shirts - lay bare a vein of sexism that many people had considered long gone, or were they anomalies? What exactly did it all mean for the next one?

Susie Wilson offered the lesson she learned: "Be strong. Don't let people put you down. You keep going. That's a good message for women," she said.

Blazing a trail

For others who have worked for years to elect a female president, the larger answer is more complicated. Clinton's bid, most of them believe, certainly made things easier for the next woman to run for president - whether that is the New York senator again or someone else.

But, as one said, close your eyes and imagine a president, and the figure that pops into view is male. Even one of Clinton's own supporters, introducing her in Indiana at the height of her springtime strength, felt compelled to declare why Clinton should win. She has, he said, "testicular fortitude."

And then there is the question of who would succeed her. Only two dozen women serve as governors and senators, the traditional entree to a presidential campaign, noted Ruth Mandel, a founder in 1971 of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, and its director for 24 years.

"Hillary Clinton is not at the head of a line. She is the line," Mandel said.

Patricia Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who toyed with a run in 1987, put it more bluntly.

"The White House is still a great big tree house with a 'no girls allowed' sign on it," she said. "And it is going to take a while."

Not just about gender

The campaign was not merely a national referendum on a female president, to be sure. The crosscurrents were fierce and contradictory.

Clinton was running to become the first president of her gender, the Democratic victor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, to become the first nonwhite chief executive. Women were split beyond the usual Democrat-Republican schisms; younger women embraced Obama more readily than their elders. Class and race, as much as gender, determined loyalties in many states.

The candidates, too, forwarded mixed messages. It was Clinton who was knocking back shots, talking tough about duking her political opponents and "obliterating" Iran. It was Obama who disdained such approaches as "cowboy" diplomacy, and promised to be more embracing and conciliatory - the very tactics women had said was their stock in trade.

"The irony here is that Barack has some of those qualities," Wilson said. "He has more of a feminine side that he shows."

But that was not a luxury allowed Clinton, said people who have strategized for a female president.

If Clinton had run her campaign as Obama ran his, Schroeder said, "She would have been attacked - 'Now, there, see, this is what they do.' ... Maybe now it's OK for both men and women to be more feely-touchy. I hope so."

Revolutionary

After playing out for 17 months in America's living rooms, it is hard to remember how revolutionary Clinton's candidacy was. Despite the reality - Obama won, she didn't - Clinton succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of those who preceded her. The last four decades have offered up less than a handful of serious contenders, none of whose efforts ended well.

Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the 2000 Republican race before any votes were cast, out of money and enthusiasm. Schroeder also dropped out broke and - worse - in a televised torrent of tears.

Then there is Clinton, who raised more money and collected more votes than any primary candidate ever - except, unfortunately for her, Obama. Many people who watched the race unfold saw Clinton doing what everyone always said a serious female candidate had to do: establish toughness and credibility on foreign affairs and defense policy first, and drum home your competence.

"Men come to it in their dark blue suits and red ties with sort of an automatic authority," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers center since 2001. "They don't have to prove it. They look presidential. The woman candidate has to do more to prove that. You saw a little bit of that struggle. ... She was running on experience and the ground shifted on her. And experience wasn't what was selling."

Sexism

If Clinton's tenacity surprised no one who had watched her morph from Watergate-era lawyer to first lady to New York senator, the campaign element that most stunned many women was the sexism they saw visited on her.

It is impossible to determine how prevalent a problem it was, or its ultimate impact on the campaign, but a rogue's gallery of insults has been captured: The time in New Hampshire when "Iron My Shirts" was chanted. The time Arizona Sen. John McCain was asked how to beat the rhymes-with-witch, and laughed. The battering by cable talkers who compared Clinton to first wives and hectoring mothers and the avenging Glenn Close character from "Fatal Attraction."

"It's a very clear message that blatant sexism at some level is still acceptable," said Ellen Malcolm, who in 1985 established Emily's List, the political powerhouse that raises money for Democratic women who favor abortion rights. "It's sometimes even amusing in our society, in ways that are pretty diminishing."

Mary Schnack, 51, an international business consultant from Sedona, Ariz.,, ran into the nutcracker and a host of other anti-Clinton memorabilia at an airport during the campaign. To her, Clinton is a trail-blazer, much like the first wave of women in the business world who toughed it out, floppy bow ties and all, paving the way for others.

Next time, Schnack said, "I don't think there will be as much of a question if a woman can do the job. I don't think people question that Hillary can do the job."

Schnack volunteered for Clinton in Iowa and Nevada, where she weathered comments from people who said a woman wasn't fit to run the country. So did Susie Wilson, 78 years young, when she made her phone calls.

When the Clinton campaign ended, Wilson was left with memories of the gender slights and something more. She would end her calls by asking women to consider that for 200 years, only men have run the country. Have you thought, she asked them, what it would be like to have a female president?

"It was as if I turned on a light switch for them," she said. "You could feel the glow over the wires. They wanted it, yes, and nobody had asked them before."

Comments

pomegranate 7 years, 2 months ago

Oh, spare me. Women don't necessarily want Hillary to be president. I am a woman and she is the last person I would vote for for president. Then comes Obama, then McCain. We have no real choice.I would vote for a woman if I thought she were the correct choice to run our country. Or man, or person of color.We can't just run around voting for a black person just because he is black, or a woman just because she is a woman.Let us just keep things in perspective and vote (in the future) for the most qualified person.

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