“I’m actually questioning my life because of what Hillary’s going through,” tennis icon Billie Jean King recently told Cokie during an interview for USA Weekend magazine. “It’s just very difficult as a woman who has fought for equality and fairness.”
“I just can’t believe the country’s still not ready for a woman.” That was the dejected summation offered by former Congresswoman and Ambassador Lindy Boggs as she watched the news the other night. Now almost 92, this pioneering feminist, who also happens to be Cokie’s mother, found herself as the “first woman” over and over again in her lifetime. And she is eager to see a “first woman president” before it’s finished.
Those sentiments explain why the last two voter groups still sticking with Hillary Clinton are white women and older people (who are mostly women). And if she’s to have any shot at salvaging her campaign, it will be those women who give it to her.
Look at what happened between Super Tuesday, when Clinton won a majority of the delegates, and the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 19. Groups that had been supporting her -- white men, Democrats, less educated and lower-income voters -- all shifted their support to Barack Obama as he racked up victories. She held on to whites overall, but declining support among women and seniors cut into her margins.
Women make up the majority of voters, and if they turn out in high numbers, Clinton could still pull it out in Texas and Ohio and live to fight another day. Right now, ABC News polls show her up by double digits among white women in both states, by more than 30 points in Ohio.
The question is whether they will show up in force at the polls, as they did in New Hampshire. After that primary, political-science professor Stephen Zunes wrote with some distress on the liberal Web site Common Dreams that a woman he knew, “a committed progressive and peace activist,” had voted for Clinton in part because she had just been “bypassed for an anticipated appointment for a position in her town government in favor of a younger unqualified male.”
It’s something every woman of a certain age has experienced. She has worked hard, gotten the job done, only to see the position she’s applied for or the promotion she believes she deserves go to the guy who looks good and talks a great game.
As she’s seen her chance of victory slip away, Clinton has sarcastically derided Obama’s talk: “Now I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The lights will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’”
But when she goes on to claim credit for the hard work needed to effect change, she slips into Senate-speak, boring the audience with talk of her time on the Armed Services Committee, while Obama’s crowds think they’re hearing those celestial choirs.
Obama’s rhetoric has helped turn traditional polling results upside down. The candidate who’s seen as the strongest leader is usually also judged the most electable. Not so this time. Voters give Clinton the high marks on leadership, Obama on electability. And if his persona has something to do with that anomaly, so does the fact that Clinton is a woman. Older voters, one of her strongest groups, are among the most likely to say that Clinton’s not as electable as Obama. They just expect the man to be the one to succeed.
Oh sure, she’s polarizing. But isn’t that because she’s a woman? It’s not WHAT she says that drives up her negative ratings; it’s how she says it. Are the words “shrill” or “strident” or “whiney” ever used to describe a man?
The Clinton campaign has made more than its share of mistakes. And Bill Clinton, alienating black voters and wagging his finger to remind everyone of what they didn’t like about him, was one of the worst. But in the end, are Democratic voters simply choosing the less qualified man over the more experienced woman?
“If you’re looking at sports analogies, she is the marquee franchise player,” argues Billie Jean King, “and everybody else is either JV or a rookie.” If enough women in Texas and Ohio agree with the tennis great, Hillary Clinton still stands a small chance of pulling it out.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.