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It’s Obama versus the sisterhood

Times Staff Writer

Darlene Ewing is a Democratic activist, longtime feminist and very frustrated Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter.

Like many who have dreamed of seeing a woman in the Oval Office, Ewing doesn’t understand why women are drifting in ever-greater numbers away from Clinton toward her rival, Barack Obama. This trend, which has imperiled the candidacy of the woman once considered a shoo-in for her party’s nomination, infuriates the frank-talking Texan.

“They’re running to the rock star, to the momentum, to the excitement,” said Ewing, a family law attorney who chairs the Dallas County Democratic Party. “And I am worried that if Hillary doesn’t get elected, I am never going to see a woman president in my lifetime. I do think her chances are slipping away, and it [ticks] me off.”

This sentiment is being expressed around the country -- in testy dinner-party conversations, around the water cooler, and in the public forum. As Clinton’s shot at the nomination boils down to two contests Tuesday -- in the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio, where she is running neck and neck with Obama -- many women who support the New York senator are angered and saddened by their sisters’ desertion to the other side.

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Old-school feminists have lined up against each other. Some chapters of the National Organization for Women are supporting Clinton; others are for Obama. There have been arguments about which candidate is more pro-choice. For some women, the rise of Obama rips open a persistent wound: an older, more experienced woman is pushed aside for a younger male colleague.

One of the most impassioned cris de coeur came from feminist poet and novelist Robin Morgan, 67 in an essay that became something of a cyberspace sensation after she posted it last month on the Women’s Media Center website (and it was forwarded by many people, including Chelsea Clinton).

Morgan decried the casual acceptance of sexism on the campaign trail this season -- from the two young men who shouted “Iron my shirt!” at Clinton to the Hillary-themed nutcrackers available in airport gift shops.

But Morgan reserved her greatest ire for women who decline to support Clinton “while wringing their hands because Hillary isn’t as likable as they’ve been warned they must be. . . . Grow the hell up. She is not running for Ms. Perfect-pure-queen-icon of the feminist movement. She’s running to be president of the United States.”

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Recent polls support the suspicion of many women that theirs is a gender divided. Last week’s Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found Clinton’s solid support from women to be dwindling. Women are now evenly divided between the two Democratic candidates, though Clinton still enjoys a sizable advantage among women 65 and older, who prefer her three-to-one over Obama.

Gloria Steinem, a Clinton supporter, weighed in with an essay in the New York Times in which she claimed that, in public and private spheres alike, women have a tougher time than African American men.

“Gender,” wrote Steinem, “is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. . . . Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot and generally have ascended to positions of power . . . before any women.”

Even “Saturday Night Live” got into the act when guest host Tina Fey expressed her outrage that feminists have deserted Clinton.

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“We have our first serious female presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton,” said Fey. “And yet women have come so far as feminists that they don’t feel obligated to vote for a candidate just because she is a woman. Women today feel perfectly free to make whatever choice Oprah tells them to.”

Many women who support Obama say they were torn, but are unapologetic about their choice. For many, the decision turns on one vote cast by Clinton in 2002: for the bill authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.

Earlier this year, a group calling itself “New York Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama,” circulated an online petition that was a nuanced endorsement of the Illinois senator. It was so popular that the words “New York” were dropped from the name, and the effort went national.

“Choosing to support Senator Obama was not an easy decision because electing a woman president would be a cause for celebration in itself and because we deplore the sexist attacks against Senator Clinton that have circulated in the media,” read the petition. “However, we also recognize that the election of Barack Obama would be another historic achievement and that his support for gender equality has been unwavering.”

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Katha Pollitt, an author and columnist for the Nation, is one of the signers.

“I think Hillary has been the target of a great big set of double standards, and in the end, I do know people who are supporting her because of the misogynistic attacks against her,” Pollitt said.

But she took issue with Steinem’s comparison.

“Even if it were true that white women were more oppressed than black men” -- as Steinem suggested -- “that still doesn’t mean you should vote for Hillary Clinton,” Pollitt said. “It might mean you should fight for better enforcement of anti-sex-discrimination rules, but it doesn’t mean you should vote for the candidate most likely to wage a war. “

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One of the first clashes between feminists broke out in December over the issue of abortion rights.

Just before Democrats were scheduled to debate in Des Moines, Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List, a political action group that supports pro-choice women for office, called a news conference to support Clinton. She criticized Obama’s lack of leadership on the issue of reproductive rights. Within minutes, Obama staffers were handing out copies of a letter Malcolm had written to Obama, singing his praises for appearing at one of her groups’ fundraisers.

“I think there is a big difference between going in and helping with a fundraiser and really taking on the president of the United States,” Malcolm responded, referring to Clinton’s support for making the morning-after pill available over the counter.

Many in the pro-choice community insist that Obama’s record on that issue is excellent. One high-profile activist switched sides in disgust.

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“I stayed with Hillary Clinton through Iowa,” said Lorna Brett Howard, a former president of the Chicago chapter of NOW, “but when it came to New Hampshire, a friend forwarded me a piece of direct mail that attacked Barack Obama on choice and it enraged me.”

Malcolm said last week that she remains hopeful that Clinton can win, but is frustrated that Obama has not been forced to produce evidence for how he will bring about change. “There is an absence of discussion about what Barack Obama has done,” Malcolm said. “How many times have we seen a woman with the best qualification for the job being pushed aside for the man who was hired?”

This complaint was echoed by Karen Wall, a 54-year-old Dallas paralegal who came to hear Bill Clinton speak Tuesday. She had heard National Public Radio political analyst Cokie Roberts recounting a conversation with Billie Jean King that stayed with her.

Roberts said Monday that King, the pioneering women’s professional tennis player, was dismayed about Clinton’s vulnerable candidacy. “I see my whole life going down the drain,” Roberts recounted King saying. “A cute young guy comes in and sweeps away all the hard work that the older woman has done.”

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“I don’t know if that’s true,” Wall said. “I personally feel you can be a feminist and vote for him. But I am voting for her.”

robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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