Last week, following Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's victory at the Washington state caucuses, I asked an uncomfortable question: Why aren't more women supporting the presidential candidacy of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton? As a 29-year-old female and Clinton supporter, I wanted to start a dialogue about gender and the presidential campaign. Well, ask a provocative question, get some provocative answers. I have received a wide variety of responses from Crosscut readers (28, to be exact, as of Feb. 19, 2008), friends, acquaintances, and strangers — some incredibly thoughtful, some knee-jerk and sexist.
Many people said that for them, it's all about the issues, and gender doesn't come into play. I would hope that candidates' positions on the issues are first and foremost in what motivates people as they cast their votes, as they have been for me. Candidates' positions on issues are what motivated me to support Al Gore over Elizabeth Dole and others in 2000, and to support King County Executive Ron Sims over Christine Gregoire in the 2004 Washington state gubernatorial primary.
Let's make sure, however, that we're not ignoring gender equality as one of the issues. Undoubtedly, Barack Obama is a strong champion of women's rights. But in the other Washington, where only 16 percent of congressional seats are held by women, and none of our 43 presidents have been women, it's not unreasonable to ask for a candidate who not only supports gender equality but who shows us it has actually arrived in the highest office of the land.
Of course, the same can be said for Hillary Clinton when it comes to racial equality, and that has many people torn. As one progressive white man jokingly told me, "We're screwed either way we vote in this race because we've been the obstacle keeping both women and minorities out of power."
As for the rest of the issues, in progressive Washington, it would seem Clinton's more progressive positions on health care reform and renewable energy should have given her an edge. The pundits also give her credit for having more substance to her plans and for faring better than Obama when debating the issues. But with a longer track record than Obama, she also has more fodder for criticism, and that's where she loses points with some progressives.
Overall, on issues alone, there isn't a huge difference between these two. Both candidates want to change the direction of our country, get us out of Iraq, strengthen the middle class, improve access to health care and education, address the climate crisis, and advance sustainable energy. So taking the issues alone doesn't explain Clinton's incredibly lopsided defeat. It seems a lot of people took more than just the issues into account.
One of the biggest differences between Clinton and Obama is experience in the nation's capitol. Clinton knows intimately what goes into the day-to-day running of our country. She is tough, battle-tested, has an encyclopedia-like knowledge of policy, and is ready to lead on day one. In Washington state, we have a history of nominating the more experienced presidential candidate in the Democratic primary. From Kerry to Gore to Bill Clinton in 1996, we've gone for experience.
Now, all of a sudden, some have decided that experience is a negative. They call Clinton "entrenched" in Washington politics and are betting their hopes on a fresh-faced Washington, D.C., newcomer.
It could be the Bush years combined with Gore's and Kerry's defeats that have done it to us. Even though Clinton is in no way to blame for the Bush administration's disastrous policies, she is being treated like an incumbent. People seem to have forgotten about the unprecedented 65 percent approval rating the first Clinton had when leaving office and are only focused on the negative state of affairs today. The default rule in politics is that incumbency becomes a negative when people get overly fed up with the status quo. Perhaps that's the only phenomenon at work here. But how much of it is also gender bias? Are experienced men capable while experienced women are "entrenched" and "polarizing"? Would we take a newcomer running for president seriously if she were a woman?
Some people feel that to vote for Clinton would be to do so "just because she's a woman." Let me dispel that notion right now. Saying "just because she's a woman" is only a slip of the tongue away from saying, "because she's just a woman." It's sexist and belittling. It implies that the only reason one would be voting for Clinton is because she's a woman, which negates all her achievements, all her service to this country, all her toughness and endurance to withstand the scrutiny and grueling fights to get this far. She has earned her path to the presidency, as one of the three people in America left standing in the race for president. Hillary Clinton isn't "just a woman," and no vote for her could possibly be cast "just because she's a woman."
Yet there are critical voices — from men and women, from outside and from within — who would pressure us to believe voting for Clinton is reverse sexism and label us as supporting her "just because she's a woman." I encourage everyone to resist those sexist and negative forces and vote for her anyway.
Some commenters said it's not that they don't support a woman for president; it's that they don't support this particular woman for president. Fair enough. Most then go on to talk about the other Clinton: Bill. I call this holding Hillary to a higher standard. Does Michelle Obama have as huge a press corps following her around every day as Bill Clinton does, just waiting for her to slip up so they can broadcast it around the country and remind people of her past follies? Well no, because for one reason, America finds her husband much more interesting than she is at the moment. Although Hillary's the candidate at hand, some people would rather talk about Bill.
Of course the other reason Michelle Obama isn't receiving the same kind of scrutiny and having the same kind of impact as Bill is that she doesn't have international-headline-making past follies, and for that reason, some people contend that taking Bill into account in Clinton's candidacy is fair game.
As much as people want to base their decisions on the issues alone, most of the people I talk to who support Obama do so for other reasons. Many people, like the young woman I mentioned in my commentary last week, admire both candidates' positions on the issues. They are leaning toward Obama because of intangibles like his charisma, his positive message of hope, his energizing oratory skills. They find him inspiring; they are excited to see him bringing young people into the process. They believe him when he says he can change Washington politics, and they think Clinton can't.
Here again, I'm not sure Obama's message of hope is the only phenomenon at work. Are gender biases interceding? Perhaps young people in particular are drawn to Obama because the media messages of our culture have influenced them to admire and hold up charismatic males and ridicule and scrutinize intelligent females. It's hard to know for sure. Obama is younger than Clinton and has put more effort into gearing his message toward young people than Clinton has.
For me, on the issues — particularly sustainable energy alternatives — Clinton has a slight edge, and on experience, she gets my vote. I like Obama's inspiring message, but it's not going to sway my vote; it defies the political realities of our ideologically-divided democracy. Additionally, I see most of the negatives proclaimed about Clinton as fraught with double standards and gender bias.
That explains my vote, but when it comes to my enthusiasm, a different intangible factor comes into play. In the same way excitement is swelling around the hope message of Obama's candidacy, I find myself more excited about Hillary's candidacy than any other of the many political contests I've watched or voted on in my lifetime. I am filled with hope and inspiration about what it would mean to the future of this country, to children growing up today, to the generations of women before me, and to me personally to see a woman in the White House.
Judging from the responses I received, women want to be and certainly are free to vote for whichever candidate they like best. Some feel no particular need to support women candidates. To them, that is gender equality, and the struggle for equal treatment is over. But I did encounter men right here in Seattle — our seeming utopia of gender equality — who said they will never vote for a woman for president. I also encountered plenty of progressive men who whole-heartedly support Hillary Clinton as the best candidate for president and had been wondering as I had why more young women aren't joining that movement.