The New York Times; by Jody Kantor; May 19, 2008
With each passing day, it seems a little less likely that the next president of the United States will wear a skirt — or a cheerful, no-nonsense pantsuit.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is now in what most agree are the waning days of her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. To use her own phrase, she has been running “to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling” in American life, and now the presidency — even a nomination that once seemed to be hers to claim — seems out of reach.
Along with the usual post-mortems about strategy, message and money, Mrs. Clinton’s all-but-certain defeat brings with it a reckoning about what her run represents for women: a historic if incomplete triumph or a depressing reminder of why few pursue high office in the first place.
The answers have immediate political implications. If many of Mrs. Clinton’s legions of female supporters believe she was undone even in part by gender discrimination, how eagerly will they embrace Senator Barack Obama, the man who beat her?
“Women felt this was their time, and this has been stolen from them,” said Marilu Sochor, 48, a real estate agent in Columbus, Ohio, and a Clinton supporter. “Sexism has played a really big role in the race.”
Not everyone agrees. “When people look at the arc of the campaign, it will be seen that being a woman, in the end, was not a detriment and if anything it was a help to her,” the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said in an interview. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is faltering, she added, because of “strategic, tactical things that have nothing to do with her being a woman.”
As a former first lady whose political career evolved from her husband’s, Mrs. Clinton was always an imperfect test case for female achievement — “somebody’s wife,” as Elaine Kamarck, a professor of government at Harvard and a Clinton supporter, described her.
Still, many credit Mrs. Clinton with laying down a new marker for what a woman can accomplish in a campaign — raising over $170 million, frequently winning more favorable reviews on debate performances than her male rivals, rallying older women, and persuading white male voters who were never expected to support her.
“She’s raised this whole woman candidate thing to a whole different level than when I ran,” said Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter and the first woman to be the vice-presidential nominee of a major party, contrasting her own brief stint as a running mate in 1984 with Mrs. Clinton’s 17-month-and-counting slog.
Ms. Goodwin and others say Mrs. Clinton was able to convert the sexism she faced on the trail into votes and donations, extending the life of a candidacy that suffered a serious blow at the Iowa caucuses. Like so many women before, she was heckled (in New Hampshire, a few men told her to iron their shirts) and called nasty names (“How do we beat the bitch?” Senator John McCain was asked at one campaign event).
But the response may have been more powerful than the injury. In the days after Mrs. Clinton was criticized for misting up on the campaign trail, she won the New Hampshire primary and drew a wave of donations, many from women expressing indignation about how she had been treated.
And Mrs. Clinton seemed to channel the lives of regular women, who often saw her as an avenging angel. Take Judith Henry, 67, for whom Mrs. Clinton’s primary losses stirred decades-old memories of working at a phone company where women were not allowed to hold management positions. “They always gave us the clerical jobs and told us we didn’t have families to support,” she said. At a rally last month in Bloomington, Ind., she sat with her daughter Susan Henry, 45, a warehouse worker, who complained that her male colleagues did less work and made more money than the women did.
Decades after the dissolution of movement feminism, Mrs. Clinton’s events and donor lists filled with women who had experienced insult or isolation on the job. Moitri Chowdhury Savard, 36, a doctor in Queens, was once asked by a supervisor why she was not home cooking for her husband; Liz Kuoppala, 37, of Eveleth, Minn., worked as the only woman in her mining crew and is now the only woman on the City Council.
Ms. Kamarck, 57, the Harvard professor and a longtime adviser to Democratic candidates, said she was still incredulous about the time her colleagues on Walter F. Mondale’s presidential campaign, all men, left for lunch without inviting her — because, she later discovered, they were headed to a strip club.
Janet Napolitano, the Democratic governor of Arizona, said the world was different now, especially the political world, thanks in part to Mrs. Clinton. “I never heard anybody say she can’t be elected because she’s a woman,” said Ms. Napolitano, who supports Mr. Obama and like many of his supporters saw less sexism in the race than Mrs. Clinton’s backers. “That’s a different deal than we’ve heard before in American politics.”
But as others watched a campaign that starred two possibly transformative figures, they felt a growing conviction that the contest was unfair. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters point to a nagging series of slights: the fixation on her clothes, even her cleavage; chronic criticism that her voice is shrill; calls for her to exit the race; and most of all, the male commentators in the news media who, they argue, were consistently tougher on her than on Mr. Obama.
Some even accuse Mr. Obama of chauvinism, pointing to the time he called Mrs. Clinton “likeable enough” as evidence of dismissiveness. Nancy Wait, 55, a social worker in Columbia City, Ind., said Mr. Obama was far less qualified than Mrs. Clinton and described as condescending his recent assurances that Mrs. Clinton should stay in the race as long as she liked. Ms. Wait said she would “absolutely, positively not” vote for him come fall.
Ms. Ferraro, who clashed with the Obama campaign about whether she made a racially offensive remark, said she might not either. “I think Obama was terribly sexist,” she said.
Cynthia Ruccia, 55, a sales director for Mary Kay cosmetics in Columbus, Ohio, is organizing a group, Clinton Supporters Count Too, of mostly women in swing states who plan to campaign against Mr. Obama in November. “We, the most loyal constituency, are being told to sit down, shut up and get to the back of the bus,” she said.
Whatever barriers Mrs. Clinton may have smashed, she left some intact for future contenders to try themselves against. She seemed uncertain how to reconcile her sex with her political persona. Though she projected an aura of authority, said Robert Shrum, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any candidate, she variously cast herself as a victim of male domination, a warm girlfriend type and, at the end, an indefatigable warrior. She even made contradictory statements about whether sex should be a factor in the race.
Mrs. Clinton ran into trouble with some of the classic hurdles that women who are politicians face, historians and sociologists said. “It was the same conversations we’ve been having since the ’70s,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Take the need to project toughness and warmth simultaneously. The test is unfair, many say, because men are not subjected to it as harshly and because it is nearly impossible not to err on one side. Still, some say Mrs. Clinton went overboard on toughness.
“The idea that you have to talk about eradicating Iran — that’s all, to me, the voices of people advising her,” said Patricia Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman and Clinton supporter who considered seeking the Democratic nomination in 1987.
And yet Mrs. Clinton may not have passed the commander in chief test. In New York Times/CBS News polls conducted this winter, voters rated Mr. Obama’s potential in that area more highly than they did Mrs. Clinton’s, though neither served in the military or has much experience directly handling international crises. Perhaps participants had many reasons for preferring Mr. Obama, but they followed the long-standing pattern of finding women less plausible military commanders than men.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, many women say with regret, did not inspire a deep or nuanced conversation between men and women, only familiar gender-war battles consisting of male gibes and her supporters’ angry responses. Mr. Obama, who sought to minimize the role of race in his candidacy, led something of a national dialogue about it, but Mrs. Clinton, who made womanhood an explicit part of her run, seemed unwilling or unable to talk candidly about gender.
Mrs. Clinton, for example, declined a New York Times request earlier this year for an interview about the gender dynamics of the race; an aide said the topic would be impossible for her to address in a frank way..
The conversation Mrs. Clinton spurred among women, however, seemed newer and more surprising. Her candidacy split Democratic women, not to mention prominent feminists. (Last week, the abortion-rights group Naral Pro-Choice America endorsed Mr. Obama, setting off protest from other women’s groups.) The cleft was largely along generational lines, with older women who had waged their own battles showing more solidarity and younger ones arguing that voting for a male candidate over a female one was itself a sign of progress and confidence.
“The most important contribution she has made is to show that women candidates are just like men candidates,” said Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study. “You have to judge them not on the basis of their gender but their character.”
Over the course of the campaign, Jennifer Rogers, a film producer in Los Angeles, came to agree. She voted for Mrs. Clinton, in part because she hoped to see a female president, but she recently lost enthusiasm over what she called a lack of truthfulness on the candidate’s part. “Her problems are about who she is and not her gender,” said Ms. Rogers, 28.
Amy Rees, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother in San Francisco, agrees — most of the time. She said she agonized between the two choices, finally voted for Mr. Obama and did not regret it. Mrs. Clinton lost on the merits, Ms. Rees said.
Still, every so often, she feels a flicker of worry about whether that is entirely so. Referring to Mr. Obama, Ms. Rees said, “He still looks more like every other president we’ve ever had than she does.”