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Clinton, finally breaking the glass ceiling, ready for a gender battle with Trump

Clinton, finally breaking the glass ceiling, ready for a gender battle with Trump
Hillary Clinton thanks her supporters at a rally in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Tuesday night. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In a political season filled with promises of revolution, something revolutionary happened: A woman has claimed a major party's presidential nomination.

That historic occurrence, overshadowed somewhat by everything else that has happened in an election year that has wildly defied expectations, will shape the general election clash to come. It sets up a November battle between presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump that will tread heavily on issues of gender.

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Clinton seized on history Tuesday night as she claimed the Democratic nomination during a campaign celebration in New York. She opened with an allusion to what she had memorably called the nation's "highest, hardest glass ceiling" — the one separating women from the Oval Office.

Exactly eight years ago Tuesday, as she departed the 2008 presidential contest, she said her campaign had knocked millions of cracks in that ceiling, one for each vote received in her losing effort.

"It may be hard to see tonight, but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now," she said with a grin Tuesday at the refurbished Brooklyn Navy Yard with a ceiling literally made of glass. "But don't worry, we're not smashing this one."

Issues of gender will dominate the general election for at least two reasons. It will be the first time a woman has led a ticket in a presidential general election, and the two candidates already have been jousting over women and their roles.

In recent days, Trump has questioned Clinton's very presence in the race.

"She doesn't even look presidential," he complained via Twitter as Clinton delivered a foreign policy address scathing in its criticism of the Republican.

The primary campaign has been loaded with such allusions to gender, and there's no reason to think that will change in the months before the general election.

The GOP primary contest "in many ways was all about who was man enough to be president of the United States," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

She cited Trump's complaints that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush needed his mother's help to get elected, his criticism of Carly Fiorina's face as one that Americans wouldn't want on a president, and the dispute between Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio over the size of Trump's hands and other body parts.

"It's all this masculinity," she said. "This is what presidential politics has always been about: Who is man enough, who is tough enough, to be leader of the free world? The default image is always male."

Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan harks back not only to a time before the civil rights of minorities had been secured, but also serves as a gender dog whistle, she said:

It implies, "Let's go back to a time when white men ran everything," Walsh said.

The official awarding of the Democratic nomination will occur during the summer convention, but media tabulations of delegate preferences indicated Monday that Clinton had secured the prize. On Tuesday, she increased her lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the popular vote, pledged delegates and superdelegates.

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Her nomination would vault the country into the company of other nations that long ago elected women as leaders.

Only two women have served on major-party tickets — Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. But both were picked for the vice presidential position, as opposed to winning the top spot outright, a distinct difference.

Now, in her reach for history, Clinton finds herself in a race with a surprising twist: In addition to being a referendum on a woman presidential nominee, it will also be a referendum on Donald Trump.

Trump's treatment of women has been at the forefront of the presidential contest since the first Republican debate last summer. Fox anchor Megyn Kelly incurred Trump's wrath after she asked the candidate why he had described various women as "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals" and wondered how he would counter Clinton's general election assertion that he was part of a "war on women."

In April, Trump accused Clinton of being an affirmative action hire for the Democratic Party.

"The only card she has is the woman's card; she's got nothing else going," Trump said the night Clinton won Pennsylvania and three other states. "And frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5% of the vote."

His criticism prompted a line in Clinton's speeches that routinely draws her supporters into a shout-along.

"He accuses me of playing the woman's card," Clinton said Sunday night in Sacramento, before a community college gymnasium full of fans who burst into cheers at the line they knew was coming.

If standing up for equal pay, raising the minimum wage and family-leave policies is playing the women's card, she said, "then you know what? Deal me in!"

The fact that it was Trump who lit the fuse on the gender wars this year may influence the tenor of the fall campaign, according to those who have studied female candidates.

"He's the one making gender relevant and engaging in sexist talk, which opens the door to her response," said Jennifer Lawless, an American University professor who specializes in women in politics. "She doesn't have to defend herself from accusations that she's putting gender out there."

Overall, Lawless said, Clinton's achievement is "incredibly important."

"This is the first step to getting there," she said of the possibility of a woman in the Oval Office. "But she still has to win."

Women remain underrepresented in U.S. politics. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, they make up 20% of the Senate, 19% of the House, less than a quarter of state legislators and only 12% of governorships, despite being half of the population.

Apart from responding to Trump, Clinton has not had to overtly dwell on the historic reach of her candidacy; it's visible in every thread of her pantsuits. And it is deeply important to many of the women who have formed the heart of her campaign.

Some grow emotional at her campaign events when talking about the impact her nomination and election would have on them. For many, particularly those her age, Clinton is a stand-in for their own experiences with discrimination or, more benignly but no less hurtfully, being ignored or written off.

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At a rally in April for female supporters in Manhattan, actress Sally Sockwell, a year younger than Clinton's 68, gasped when asked how she would feel if Clinton achieved those historic firsts.

"I think it will just rip my heart out," she said. "It'll take my breath away."

That sentiment has driven the giant gap between the alliances of men and women in this year's general election contest. In an ABC/Washington Post poll last month, Trump led by 22 points among men and Clinton led by 14 among women. That 36-point gender gap is twice the average seen in presidential election exit polls since 1996, the pollsters said.

Key to Clinton's approach against Trump will be energizing the votes of women without sending a message to other voters that the campaign is all about her historic effort.

"Gender is a tricky factor in political campaigns," said Rose Kapolczynski, who ran California Sen. Barbara Boxer's campaigns, including the 1992 breakthrough election in which she and Dianne Feinstein became the state's first female senators.

"Voters want a candidate who is going to care about them and fight for them, and if candidates are too focused on identity politics, voters worry about whether they will fight for everyone," Kapolczynski said.

Clinton is addressing those concerns in myriad ways. Signs at every event read: "Fighting for us." At appearances, she emphasizes her willingness to work with others — a strategy that plays on positive notions of women being more collaborative than men.

Tuesday, she repeatedly credited "women and men" for securing rights for all.

"When I started the campaign more than a year ago, I wanted to listen," she told supporters Sunday, an hour after a lengthy chat with Vallejo residents.

"I know that was kind of boring to some people. It's like, 'There she goes, listening again.'"

"I actually learn things when I listen, and I want people to know, not just in this campaign but in the White House, I'm going to keep listening."

Eight years ago Tuesday, when she talked of the cracks in the glass ceiling, Clinton declared that light was shining through "like never before, filling us all with the hope … that the path will be a little easier next time."

If this time has not been particularly easy, Clinton acknowledged Monday that she now feels the weight of history, happily.

Her supporters, she said, share a "belief that having a woman president will make … a historic statement about what kind of country we are."

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker and subscribe to the free daily newsletter.

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UPDATES:

9:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and changes throughout.

This article was originally published at 2 p.m.

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