Go away? Why should she?

This is not how the story line was expected to go, dammit, and the impatience of the (mostly male) punditocracy is palpable. Doesn’t Hillary Clinton know she was supposed to lose decisively in Ohio or Texas last week so that Barack Obama could unify the Democratic Party and sail to victory in November?

Except that she didn’t lose -- and, boy, are some people annoyed about that! Why doesn’t she just get out of the way? The media have sorted it all out so neatly: He is young, glamorous, charismatic and funny; he represents the future. She is older, strident, earnest and humorless; she is the past. He inspires; she hectors. Ugh!

Not only is Clinton well beyond the age when our culture deems women to have lost most of their value, but so are all too many of her supporters -- and there are few things this country is less interested in than aging women. America requires that females be (or at least appear) young and sexually desirable. Once they’ve passed the age of facile objectification and commodification, they’re supposed to disappear. How dare they not cooperate with our national insistence that older women become invisible?

Just in case we missed the memo, Rush Limbaugh recently spelled it all out for us. After observing that “aging makes men look more authoritative, accomplished and distinguished,” he registered his own distaste about the prospect of having to watch Clinton shrivel up in the White House. “Will America want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” he asked.

Oh, the horror! In the world according to Limbaugh, witnessing such a spectacle would be too repellent for the squeamish American electorate (although it would presumably pose no problem to watch John McCain -- who would be the oldest president ever elected -- slide into decrepitude if he were to win). But we certainly don’t want to be forced to look at and (God forbid!) listen to a considerably younger woman.

So why won’t Clinton just scram? I mean, you can’t drive a stake through that woman’s heart! She just keeps getting up and fighting on, like some incredibly irritating pop-up doll that won’t stay down, no matter how many times you smash it to the ground. Not only does “the bitch” (as one McCain supporter memorably called her) insist on staying in the race, but her supporters are getting all riled up and defying the pressure to make her go away. News reports chronicle the anger of older female voters who are simply refusing to go along with the triumphalist narrative of Obama’s inevitability. Who do they think they are?

In most of the news coverage, the idea of representation -- the fundamental point of democracy and the reason ours exists, if memory serves -- never even comes up. But the fact is that an enormous segment of the electorate spends most of its time below the radar of American culture. Younger women may be the tip of the iceberg, the part we’re able to see, but its hulking body -- the vast cohort of older women we so rarely hear from -- remains submerged.

Many people would like to keep it that way. A quarter of a century ago, the wife of a major Hollywood mogul told me that she couldn’t stand Los Angeles because women here became invisible after they passed the age of 25. Although that number may be somewhat higher elsewhere, a good case could be made that such attitudes have permeated our entire society in the intervening years. How many major studio movies (not indie films; that’s cheating) have you seen lately that star older women? How many presidential candidates have you heard talking about the needs of older women?

The resounding silence notwithstanding, those needs have only become more acute. Twice as many American women age 75 and older live in poverty compared with men, and most older women feel their economic vulnerability keenly. Younger women struggle to manage work and family with little help from our government; although 163 countries give women paid leave with the birth of a child, the United States does not. So far, women have helped to elect a long series of men who paid lip service to family values while doing virtually nothing to improve the lot of this nation’s women and children. Are female voters finally getting fed up? One national poll showed Clinton leading Obama by only 5 percentage points among women with annual incomes higher than $50,000 -- but among those who earn less, she beats him by a whopping 36 percentage points.

And yet the misogyny infecting the presidential campaign is dizzyingly toxic, as Robin Morgan pointed out in a recent essay, “Goodbye to All That (#2)” -- citing “the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs,” T-shirts reading, “If only Hillary had married O.J. instead!” and Comedy Central’s “South Park” story line about terrorists secreting a bomb in Clinton’s vagina.

“This is sociopathic woman-hating. If it were about Jews, we would recognize it instantly as anti-Semitic propaganda; if about race, as KKK poison,” Morgan wrote. “Where is our sense of outrage -- as citizens, voters, Americans?”

How about as women? After all, 54% of the electorate could wield decisive power, if only they would claim it. There are signs the slumbering beast may be waking up -- and she’s not in a happy mood. From New Hampshire to Ohio, women have given Clinton a sizable edge over Obama -- and as of last week, they put her back into a race that the political elite had decreed all but over.

What if women actually started to assert their needs and interests, particularly women who have aged out of babedom? What if they stopped slinking dutifully into invisibility and instead rose up to demand their fair share of our nation’s resources and rewards? What if they, like Clinton, finally said, “Hell, no -- We won’t go!”

What a concept! No wonder so many guys seem to have the vapors these days.

Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of “The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?”