Clinton not an easy sell to all women

Times Staff Writer

On paper, they look an awful lot like Hillary Rodham Clinton. They are professional women of a certain age -- politically active Democrats, liberals, unabashed feminists who remember what it was like to be told they could not become firefighters or university department heads, let alone president of the United States of America.

They are women of accomplishment who have bumped up against glass ceilings, sometimes breaking them, while managing marriages, raising children and trying to make the world their version of a better place.

They have waited a long, long time for a plausible female presidential candidate. You’d think they’d be rushing to support Clinton. But they can’t stand her.


“She leaves me cold,” said Sidonie Smith, who chairs the University of Michigan English department. “I hate to say that. It’s a very strange feeling to have.”

Like her husband, former President Clinton, Hillary Clinton has inspired highly mixed emotions over the years. For the political right, she has served as a protean symbol of everything wrong with Democrats and feminists.

For upscale women on the left -- historically her toughest crowd -- negative reaction has been more nuanced. Polls show that blue-collar women see her as a defender of their economic interests. But their well-educated upper-middle-class sisters, who aren’t as worried about job security, feel free to judge her as they would a peer. She has recently gained substantial ground with this constituency, but polls continue to show that fully half of college-educated Democratic women do not support her.

The reasons vary. For many, it’s visceral. While they struggled to break through institutional barriers in the workplace, Clinton hitched her star to her man and followed him to the top. When his philandering imperiled his political career, she not only pulled him out of the fire but helped orchestrate attacks against his accusers.

For others, the anger they feel is purely political. Some are disappointed by her support of the Iraq war, her reluctance to take stands on some hot-button issues or the fact that she has re-created herself as a centrist.


In an essay in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that she was put off by Clinton’s “sanctimoniousness.” She wondered why “so many of the most liberal and educated women are ambivalent about Hillary?” Flanagan’s answer: By sticking with a husband who has mistreated vulnerable women -- for the sake of her marriage, her child and her ambition -- she has made herself complicit in his unsavory behavior, and diminished the very best parts of herself.


On the Huffington Post blog, Nora Ephron described “Hillary resisters” (and she is one) as women who disapprove of her tendency to triangulate, deplore her position on the Iraq war and “don’t trust her as far as you can spit.”

In the spring, University of Michigan communications studies professor Susan J. Douglas wrote an essay for the liberal journal In These Times called “Why Women Hate Hillary.” And in an interview with LA Weekly last May, Jane Fonda called Clinton “a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina.”

Some politics experts are baffled by the antipathy. Perhaps women hold each other to an unrealistic standard, said Ruth B. Mandel, an expert on women and politics who is director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University and counts herself among the baffled.

“I do feel that people are just grumpy about her,” Mandel said. “It is complex ideologically and psychologically -- ‘I am mad at her because she didn’t divorce her husband, I am mad at her because she didn’t vote against the war.’ ”

Seeking the perfect female candidate, concluded Mandel, could be called “Waiting for the Goddess.” And because politics at the highest level requires compromise, a certain centrism and inevitably sullying hands-on experience, she added, “You could spend a lifetime waiting for the perfect person to come along, and in politics, that’s not gonna happen.”

Ann Lewis, Clinton’s director of women’s outreach, is upbeat about Clinton’s progress with this sector of voters and thinks it’s only a matter of time till they come around.


“I do believe that what you are describing are women on a different arc,” Lewis said. “They take longer to make up their minds. They want to make sure you are not going to let them down.”

‘A tragic figure’

But the Hillary resisters -- who say they will vote for her if she becomes the nominee -- already feel that Clinton has let them down.

“Hillary, in a sense, is a tragic figure,” said Clara Oleson, a 65-year-old retired lawyer and union educator in West Branch, Iowa, who supports Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). “She seems to feel she needs to be a social male -- aggressor, commander in chief.”

Oleson takes umbrage at the assumption expressed by many of her women friends that she should vote for Clinton because she is a woman. “That is a phrase I have fought against my entire life!” said Oleson, a politically active feminist for decades.

Mary C. Kelley, 63, chairs the University of Michigan’s history department and is somewhat wistfully supporting former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. “I strongly believe that it’s feminism that made Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidency plausible. Therefore, I would like a candidate who is not simply running like another man, and that’s what I see in her self-presentation again and again and again.”

To solidify and increase her support among women, Clinton has assiduously courted them. Last month, she appeared on the female gabfest, ABC’s morning program “The View.” She told a union audience in Chicago that if they wanted a winner, “I’m your girl.” And she joked that at her age -- 60 -- she was happy to be receiving so much attention “from all these men.”


Her attempts to curry favor began to pay off. Support for Clinton among college-educated women jumped from 29% in June to 50% in October, according to the most recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

Then came what is widely regarded to be her worst debate performance so far, in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, when she gave conflicting answers to questions about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, tax reform and the release of her White House papers. Her opponents took her to task. And she seemed to play the gender card, a risky move.

Her campaign complained about “piling on” by her male rivals. Bill Clinton implied the critiques amounted to a “Swift boating” of his wife. Kate Michelman, a prominent feminist who advises Edwards, accused Clinton of “disingenuously playing the victim card.”

Her standing in national polls dipped a bit, but she maintained her position as the national front-runner. And in a subsequent debate on Nov. 15, she made a point of saying that she did not feel her opponents attacked her because she is a woman, but because she is in the lead. (In fact, in Iowa, site of the country’s first nominating contest, she is in a dead heat with Obama, and Edwards is a close third.)

Wendy Kaminer, 57, a lawyer and author, divides Hillary-resistant feminists into contemporaries of Clinton’s, women who entered the post-college world believing they were fully equal to men, and women who are 10 or 20 years older.

Clinton’s peers, said Kaminer, may take issue with her choices, while older women may take issue with her political style.


“By putting her political ambitions on hold, or making a decision that the best way to satisfy them is to do it with her husband, well, I don’t hold it against her, but it makes me less starry-eyed about her,” Kaminer said.

As for the generation ahead of Clinton, “What you may be hearing is the commitment to pacifism that some women associate with feminism,” Kaminer said. “It’s what I think of as the ‘feminine’ strain of feminism that sees women as bringing something special to the table because they are not militaristic, work by consensus and don’t play the boys’ game. And Hillary is someone who has played the boys’ game exceedingly well.”

Too far to the center?

Some feminists are deeply conflicted about their choice. Jean Lloyd-Jones, a 78-year-old former Iowa legislator courted by Democratic contenders, didn’t want to talk about it. “I didn’t call you back because I really didn’t want to have this conversation,” Lloyd-Jones said. “I would be pleased to have a woman in the oval office. But Hillary Clinton is not my first choice.”

Lloyd-Jones, who feels that Clinton has moved too far to the center, is beholden to corporate interests and inspires such negative feeling she may have trouble winning a general election, has endorsed Obama.

If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, the Hillary holdouts said their objections would melt away. Keeping a Republican out of the White House will become the paramount concern for Democrats, Hillary-resistant or otherwise.

As 83-year-old Mori Costantino of Iowa City put it, “If Hillary is nominated, I will hold my nose as I do with everybody else and support her. I’ve been doing that for years.”