Dreams of our mothers

Sen. Hillary's Clinton's poor showing in Washington raises an uncomfortable question: Why don't women support their own?
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Sen. Hillary Clinton in Seattle (2008) (Orin O'Neill / Crosscut Flickr pool)

Sen. Hillary's Clinton's poor showing in Washington raises an uncomfortable question: Why don't women support their own?

Like so many of my neighbors, I filed into an over-capacity community center in Seattle on Saturday, Feb. 9, to support my candidate for president. I'm a 29-year-old woman, and my candidate is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One of the first sights that struck me as I entered the stuffy caucus room was that of a bright-faced little girl, about 9, standing with her parents, obviously proud to be there, and smiling at anyone who came into eye contact. In the corner, a new mother and father bounced their 4-month-old baby girl on their knees. I thought to myself how wonderful it was that these parents brought their young daughters to witness the historic day when their voices would finally be represented in the highest office in the land.

When it came time to divide up by candidate, however, both sets of parents – with daughters in tow – clumped to the other side of the room, where the vast majority of my neighbors stood in support of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. All across Washington at the caucuses that day, those of us supporting Clinton were out-polled 2 to 1.

The speeches and conversations commenced. Most agreed both candidates were great. Many felt torn. We talked experience versus inspiration, dynasties versus the anti-establishment. We talked health care, Iraq, and foreign relations. We talked about who could best beat Arizona Sen. John McCain. But we didn't talk gender or, for that matter, race. Gender was completely absent from the dialogue, as it seems to have been throughout this presidential race.

A young female Obama supporter came up to me to ask me why I was supporting Hillary. I explained to her that in a country where women make up slightly more than 50 percent of the population, we have had 43 male Presidents in a row. Now along comes a tough, intelligent, compassionate female with good ideas and the experience and connections to put those ideas into action. She is by far the most qualified candidate in the race, and having dreamed of a country where women have equal access to power and leadership roles, Clinton represents a once-in-a-generation hope.

The woman looked at me somewhat blankly. She told me she considers herself a feminist, but she tries not to let that influence her decision. She admitted she thinks both Clinton and Obama are great candidates in terms of qualifications and positions on the issues but that she feels more inspired by Obama. Oratory skills and slogans are influencing factors for her, but not feminism?

And that's what's left me wondering. Why aren't more women rallying around the opportunity to elect the first woman president of the United States?

Would a young African-American man eschew taking racial pride into account when considering whether to support Obama? I hope not! In talking to my friends in that demographic, they certainly feel pride that one of their own is such a viable candidate, and it is absolutely a factor for why they support him.

When Gary Locke became the first Asian-American governor in U.S. history, I know young Asian Republicans who didn't agree with him on the issues but flocked to work on his campaign because they were so proud of one of their own crossing such an important barrier.

If the U.S. had been represented by 43 straight female presidents, would the men of this country sit back, complacent, when the first promising male candidate of their generation came along?

Ironically, lately I have heard more men than women flat-out tell me that it's time for a female president. From women I hear statements like, "We need change," or "I don't want to support someone who got there by riding her husband's coattails." If gender were a part of the dialog, we would be talking about the inherent sexism of those statements. We are holding the woman to higher standard than the men, and it seems to be women who are doing it.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton was instead simply Hillary Rodham, just a woman who was in Bill Clinton's law school class at Yale, what would be different today? Certainly her intelligence, drive, conviction, and deep calling for public service are all her own. The evidence of those qualities was there long before Bill came along. And yet, without him by her side, would she have been taken seriously as a Senate candidate? Perhaps. Would she be taken seriously as a candidate for president? Judging by the sparse number of similarly qualified women who have managed to climb to the top tier of elected office but are not running for president, the answer is probably not. Is she any less qualified than she would be without his coattails? Absolutely not. That is the sexist paradox. Meanwhile, without his famous last name and family connections, our current president wasn't well-qualified to be president and yet the dynasty issue was never a serious factor in either of his presidential runs.

Perhaps women in Washington have particularly strong grounds to be lulled into complacency. After all, in our three highest statewide offices, we are represented by women. Women get elected here. But in Iowa, the little state that plays such a big role in nominating our presidential candidates, a woman has never been elected statewide. And Iowa is not alone in that distinction.

Women are not yet equal. Misogyny and sexism in all their subtle forms are rampant in this country. From our attitudes about sports heroes and soldiers who rape, murder, and abuse women, to movies about funny unattractive men using gorgeous dim-witted women as the butt of their bedroom humor, today's sexism has become stealth. Rather than the blatant inequalities of my mother's generation, today's sexism is an undercurrent defining women as slightly lesser. As a result, misogynistic messages often go unexamined and get reinforced within our own gender.

Women no longer seem united to stand against sexism and stand up for our own. As a social experiment, watch any one of the number of reality television shows that have pitted men against women in some form of competition. Watch over and over again as the men instantly bond together in fraternity while the women stumble over to the other side or fall victim to infighting.

So once again I reflect on the bright-faced little girl who participated in our caucus. Twenty years ago, when I was her age, I certainly never received the message that I could be president of the United States. The message this little girl received Saturday was much more mixed. She can compete equally, but she will be held to a higher standard; she has more than 200 years of history working against her, but she can't count on any particular boost from her own gender.

I'd like to send her a better message than that. I'd like to start a new conversation about hope and inspiration in this presidential race. It's time to start talking about gender, and we ladies need to start the conversation.


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