At the Barricades In the Gender Wars

Clinton’s women supporters fear her bid has unleashed a sexist backlash 

Wall Street Journal; by Jonathan Kaufman and Carol Hymowitz; March 29, 2008 

Valerie Benjamin, a human-resources manager for a consulting firm here, was driving to work recently in her red minivan with a Hillary bumper sticker when a man pulled up alongside and rolled down his window. “You can be for Hillary all you want,” he shouted, “but there is no way that thing is going to become president.”

“I couldn’t believe this guy was shouting at me in my car,” says Ms. Benjamin. “I am continuously surprised by the level of venom.”

[Valerie Benjamin]

When Sen. Clinton started her presidential campaign more than a year ago, she said she wanted to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. But many of her supporters see something troubling in the sometimes bitter resistance to her campaign and the looming possibility of her defeat: a seeming backlash against the opportunities women have gained.

Just as Barack Obama’s campaign has been empowering for African-Americans, Sen. Clinton’s run has inspired women across the country, drawing millions to the polls and putting her in a neck-and-neck battle for the nomination. She has already gone farther than any woman before her — a source of great pride for her women supporters.

But her campaign has also prompted slurs and inflammatory language that many women thought had been banished from public discourse. Some women worry that regardless of how the election turns out, the resistance to Sen. Clinton may embolden some men to resist women’s efforts to share power with them in business, politics and elsewhere.

Sen. Clinton, the onetime front runner, has had to recast herself as the fighting underdog. There are many reasons for that beyond gender, of course. Among other things, she faces the perception, shared by many women, that she is a politically polarizing figure. And her opponent, Sen. Obama, has galvanized young people, including many women who don’t see gender as a defining issue.

But even some women who don’t support Sen. Clinton express unease about the tone of some attacks on her. “Why is it OK to say such horrible things about a woman?” asks Erika Wirkkala, who runs a Pittsburgh public-relations firm and supports Sen. Obama. “People feel they can be misogynists, and that’s OK. No one says those kinds of things about Obama because they don’t want to be seen as racist.”

The concern among some women about sexism comes amid signs that women’s progress in the workplace has stalled or even regressed. In 2007, women earned median weekly wages of 80.2 cents for every dollar earned by men, down from 80.8 cents in 2006 and 81 cents in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic.

At the nation’s largest 500 companies, women account for 50% of managers, but hold just 15.4% of senior executive jobs, down from 16.4% in 2005, according to a survey by Catalyst, the New York research firm and women’s advocacy group. Almost three-quarters of these senior women are in jobs that rarely lead to the corner office. The number of senior women in “line” jobs that involve running a business, with responsibility for profits and losses, dropped to 27.5% last year from 29% in 2005, according to Catalyst.

At U.S. law firms, women accounted for 17.9% of partners in 2006, up from 14.2% of partners 1996, according to the directory of legal employers compiled by the National Association for Law Placement, even though women received 48% of law degrees granted in 2006 and 43.5% in 1996.

Katherine Putnam, president of Package Machinery Co., a West Springfield, Mass., equipment manufacturer, recalls that at a lunch she attended recently, a group of male chief executives “started talking about what an awful b—- Hillary was and how they’d never vote for her.” She says she kept quiet. “I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with them,” she says. “But their remarks were a clear reminder that although I could sit there eating and drinking with them, and work with them, instinctively their reaction to me isn’t positive.”

Women make up the enthusiastic core of Sen. Clinton’s supporters. She won almost 60% of women voters in the Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio, fueling her comeback, and she is counting on them in the coming Pennsylvania primary. Recent polls show her with a double digit lead in that state, and support from 60% of women.

“Every time Sen. Obama tries to close out the campaign, there are a ton of women who say, ‘Here is a woman trying to get her shot and they are going to elect a guy,’ and they rally to her,” says pollster William McInturff.


In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, conducted this week, Democratic women favored Sen. Clinton over Sen. Obama, 52% to 40%. Among Democratic men, the results were reversed: Sen. Obama garnered 52%, versus 36% for Sen. Clinton. Negative views about Sen. Clinton were more prevalent among Democratic men than women. Fifty-one percent of men said they had negative views of Sen. Clinton, while 32% reported position views. Among Democratic women, 44% reported negative views about her, and 42% reported positive ones.

Many factors, of course, shape how voters view the two candidates: their positions on the issues, Sen. Obama’s rhetorical skills and message of change, and Sen. Clinton’s personality and record. But the tenor of the campaign is unsettling many women.

“No one can say that the male vote is all gender-based,” says Beth Brooke, global vice chair of strategy and regulatory affairs at Ernst & Young, and one of four women on the company’s 21-person America’s Executive Board. “But it reinforces among women of my generation the feeling that every day we walk in the door [at work], we are walking into an environment that is still biased. I’m feeling a tension I don’t normally feel.”

One reason women have faced difficulty ascending the corporate ladder in recent years is that the number of management jobs has declined as companies have gotten leaner. The total number of corporate-officer positions has declined 21% since 2002, according to a Catalyst study.

The ranks of women in senior-executive jobs are so thin that when a woman retires, switches jobs or is ousted, gains are often reversed. When Meg Whitman steps down as CEO of eBay on March 31 after 10 years at the helm to pursue other interests, she’ll be replaced by John Donahoe, president of eBay’s marketplaces division — and the number of female CEOs at the top 500 companies will decline to just 12.

A few weeks ago, Sheryl Sandberg, former Google vice president of global online sales and operations, moved to Facebook, the privately owned social-networking site, to become chief operating officer; she was replaced at Google by her former deputy, David Fischer. When Morgan Stanley co-president Zoe Cruz was ousted last December, her position was eliminated. On the other hand, women this week snagged two top finance jobs: Terri Dial was named global head of consumer strategy at Citigroup Inc., and Jane Mendillo was chosen to manage Harvard University’s endowment.

Heather Arnet, a Clinton supporter who runs a Pittsburgh organization that lobbies for more women on public commissions and corporate boards, recently surveyed the Internet and found more than 50 anti-Hillary Clinton sites on Facebook. One of them, entitled “Hillary Clinton Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich,” had more than 38,000 members.

“What if one of these 38,000 guys is someone you, as a woman, have to go to and negotiate a raise?” she asks.


Here in Pittsburgh and surrounding blue-collar areas, Sen. Clinton’s run is stirring discussion among women about sexism in politics and in the workplace. The pay gap between male and female professionals in the Pittsburgh area exceeds the national average across most industries and occupations, according to a new University of Pittsburgh study. Women managers earned just 58.3% of what male managers made, and 89.5% of what women managers around the country made, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In the political arena, Pennsylvania ranks 45th among states in number of female officeholders.

Even in the nonprofit sector, where women have been faring better nationwide, women in Pittsburgh earn less than two-thirds what men do, which is larger than the national gap. Four large nonprofits in the area recently had CEO openings; all the jobs went to white men, including two positions formerly held by women.

“I’d like to think that doesn’t reflect a trend, but just a periodic wrinkle,” says Frederick W. Thieman, who recently succeeded a woman as head of the Buhl Foundation.

An hour away in Indiana, Pa., a working-class town, Jill Fiore, who teaches part-time at a local college and has a doctorate in English, says she constantly has to remind students to call her “Dr. Fiore” — the same way they address male professors — rather than “Jill” or “Mrs. Fiore.” Unable to get a full-time college teaching job, she made just $8,000 last year cobbling together part-time work, and she recently decided to open a yoga business.

“The sexism aimed at Hillary is astounding me,” she says. “We want to let our daughters know that we can be anything. It’s a lie. If even Hillary Clinton can’t make it, what chance do we have?”

Exit polls indicate that Sen. Clinton has run strongest among working-class women and women in low-paying professional jobs such as nursing and teaching — women who work on their feet, who often have faced wage discrimination and have struggled economically.

Jean Yarnal, who has worked in local government for 41 years, says she was unnerved recently when a man she knew came into her office and asked for help with a zoning issue. When talk turned to politics, she says, he denounced Sen. Clinton as a “lesbian” and used several slurs. Ms. Yarnal says she didn’t respond, but thought to herself, “That’s the last time I do you a favor.”

“It’s like the feelings against women are getting stronger,” says Ms. Yarnal. “It’s like men are saying, ‘We want to put you women in your place — watch out, don’t go too fast.’ “

Charles McCollester, a professor of industrial relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who works with union members, says he is ready for a woman president, “just not this woman.” He supports Sen. Obama. “Several of my really close female friends feel this is unleashing some kind of antiwoman sentiment. But I don’t see it. We love women. I just never cared much for Hillary. She has set out to become as male as all the rest of the boys.”

Some women in town say they don’t bring up politics at work. “The consensus in my office is that women are too emotional and won’t make a good president,” says Terri George, a paralegal in a law office.

Some young women who support Sen. Obama — sometimes to the chagrin of their pro-Hillary mothers — say they too are troubled by the gender gap in the workplace. But many say they don’t feel comfortable being called “feminists,” and that they look to different role models than Sen. Clinton.

“It isn’t easy being a woman in academia,” says Amanda Moniz, a 36-year-old Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Michigan. “I want a woman candidate who is strong, but also feminine, and who doesn’t feel she has to be tougher than men to succeed,” she says. “Although Hillary has achieved a lot on her own, she wouldn’t be where she was if not for her husband — and that isn’t an inspiring lesson.”

Alexa Steinberg, 25, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, says she recognizes “that women only make 78 cents for every male dollar, and there are still hurdles for women that I’ll face.” She says she thinks it’s only a matter of time before she’ll be supporting a female candidate for U.S. president — but it won’t be Sen. Clinton. “Politically and personally, she’s trying to take on the male persona, and isn’t a woman in the way I want a woman candidate to be,” she says.

Ms. Steinberg, who supports Sen. Obama, says she’s far more drawn to Michele Obama as a role model. “Michele has a career and even earns more than Barack, and she can knock him for not picking up his socks or doing the laundry,” she explains. “But she has a sense of humor, too. She has a blend of many things, a balance that I can see and appreciate.”

With the Pennsylvania primary looming on April 22, it’s unlikely that workplace tensions over Sen. Clinton’s candidacy will abate. On March 5, the day after Sen. Clinton won Ohio, Jackie LeViseur, a fund-raiser at Youngstown State University, arrived at her office to find her female colleagues, mostly secretaries, high-fiving each other and cheering in the hall.

The men, most of them bosses, remained in their offices, looking, says Ms. LeViseur, like their team had lost the football game.

“They might have been a little afraid to speak up,” says Ms. LeViseur.


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