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Gender Betrayal


Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)

It is more than a little painful—some would say ugly—watching Hillary Rodham Clinton fight to the last to hold on to her dream. This was not the way it was supposed to be. The presumptive heiress apparent to her party’s nomination, she was supposed to, if not exactly coast to that nomination, at least have it sewn up before now. But it all got away.

Part of it, of course, is the charismatic upstart who slipped into the lead with his graceful oratory and charismatic calls for change — making Clinton look retro-partisan and old hat, a trench-warfare policy wonk who couldn’t rouse the heart.

But part of it is even crueler: Hillary Clinton did not hold on to the women’s vote the way she needed to. It was their hearts—or many of them, anyway—that she left untouched and that, in a nutshell, is what has cost her the lead, and perhaps even the nomination itself, barring any miracles or major missteps on the other side.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Oh, she did get a good deal of the women’s vote. She held on to lower-income, non-college-educated women. White women, that is. Black women, of all incomes, voted for Sen. Barack Obama. But she didn’t hold the allegiance of her own cohort: the higher-earning, college-educated white women who you would have thought—she must have thought—would be hers for the asking; especially those of us who, like me, are her generational sisters.

I have been privy to heated battles among women, joined a few myself, as we’ve wrestled with the Hillary factor. With what we owe her, what she owes us, what we want from her — gyrating, some of us, between gender loyalty and attraction to the new kid on the block, a less blemished, less obviously manipulative candidate.

Though one could argue that Obama’s alliance with Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., a man whose extreme views he seemed genuinely not to share, was in effect a strategic—if also emotional—alliance, an attempt to be part of the black inner-city Chicago political world where he got his start. He is an operator, too. He didn’t want to play the race card, but played it with oratorical flourish when forced to.

Not Clinton. She never played the gender card, never figured out how to make it work for her, for the rest of us — how to summon up the old historical goose bumps by conjuring the days we stormed the barricades. The first woman president of the United States: it should or could have had resonance. Meaningful even for younger women who get bored by feminist memories of yore, but who might have been reminded at how few female leaders there still are—only a handful in high elective office.

But she never played it, never reached and grabbed for the sentiment, never let us register any of the precedent-setting excitement her victory might bring. In fairness, she didn’t want to be patronized as the “girl” candidate — notice, for example, how often she is referred to as “Hillary” while Obama is called by his last name — or accused of reverse sexism. Indeed, she was accused of precisely that when she dared to talk about the historic nature of her run.

No doubt she is mindful, as well, that women still get judged more harshly — not just by men but often, and especially, by other women. In all the Wright brouhaha, Obama was not accused of being a Machiavellian panderer. But there is pander involved — he spun it pretty, but it’s there.

Had Clinton had such a rhetorically incendiary spiritual leader, she would have been vilified to the max for making an unholy alliance — what some, again often women, have accused her of making with her own husband. Best not shed a tear, even in exhaustion, if you don’t want to be dissected by the bully boy cable quipsters—from O’Reilly to Matthews and back again–as one of those emotionally volatile, manipulative females.

So no, can’t go there. Better leave the gender card on the table.

There was the other issue, of course, the fact that, to be viable as a woman candidate—certainly in the general election, for which she was positioning herself — she had to be tough, show she could reach for that phone at 3 a.m., send young men to die in battle. As if that’s what we need more of.

The irony, or ironies, is that she was running like a man to be the first woman president, leaving Obama to out-soft her and garner the vote of those white, liberal, educated and more anti-war women voters. Her people, her sisters.

Sorry. Not this time.

The truth is much of her reluctance to use the gender card goes below posturing and polls. It goes right to the edgy, toughened heart of who she is. Unlike Obama, who is a post-racial, bi-racial candidate, Clinton came of age in the thick of her particular fight. She has had to battle so hard so long, right from her childhood home.

She had, like so many of us in her generation, one of those larger-than-life, autocratic Greatest Generation fathers. These were the stiff-upper-lipped, old-school dads, who believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen…or bedroom, but not in the boardroom. Certainly not in the White House. These are the men who made their daughters feminists, made them fighters. I know; I had one.

Then, of course, in Hillary’s case, she married a man who was her intellectual partner — but also a philanderer. That roughened her up and toughened her up even more. Combat is in her nature.

I don’t think her Iraq vote was pandering or positioning. I think she believed it to be right at the time—which is why she has never apologized. Just as she has never allowed herself to be judged for standing by her man, always deflecting any pity that might come her way because of his predilections.

Less well-off women, women who’ve had it tougher, give her a bye—more than—because they do identify with her and her stubborn, even admirable, endurance in politics and marriage. But her natural generational and gender allies have abandoned her for the more graceful, less battle-scarred male candidate.

As are most things having to do with the Clintons, this has been absolutely Shakespearean to watch.

Anne Taylor Fleming is a novelist, commentator and essayist for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” She is the author of a memoir, “Motherhood Deferred: A Woman’s Journey.”

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