PHILADELPHIA – Two hecklers interrupted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s January campaign event in a high-school auditorium in Salem, N.H., demanding, “Iron my shirt! Iron my shirt!”
Clinton paused as police escorted them outside. “Oh, the remnants of sexism – alive and well,” she said, adding, to applause, that she was hoping to “break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
Six months later, Clinton’s failure to crack that barrier is prompting an assessment beyond the usual dissection of a campaign’s tactical and strategic mistakes: What role did her gender play and what does it mean for the future?
The consensus among pollsters, strategists and scholars is that Clinton’s experience will make it easier for the next woman to run for president. After all, Clinton raised about $200 million, got 18 million votes, and won the votes of droves white working-class men never expected to be part of her base.
“For most voters, a woman president is no longer a hypothetical,” said Ellen Moran, executive director of Emily’s List, a group that works to elect Democratic women. “Now, we can see it. She answered the question of whether a woman can hold her own in a venue that has been male-dominated since the birth of the nation.”
What Clinton called the “remnants of sexism” were pretty virulent. Consider the obscene T-shirts; some news media fixation on her pantsuits and appearance; some male commentators on cable TV who mocked her voice as shrill or joked about emasculation.
More than that, though, some Clinton supporters saw discrimination in repeated calls from party leaders and pundits for her to withdraw, even though she was winning the later primaries. The same pressure has faced trailing male candidates in the past, but it seemed disrespectful to many.
“Women who have been the backbone of the Democratic Party feel our party has betrayed us – this was our time,” said Cynthia Ruccia, 55, a Mary Kay cosmetics dealer from Columbus, Ohio, who formed Clinton Supporters Count Too.
She said she’s going to vote for McCain. “Let’s see them try to win without us,” Ruccia said.
Exit polls suggest that gender was a net positive for Clinton, forming a strong base that enabled her to get as far as she did because of rock-solid support from middle-aged white women, many of whom entered the work force in the 1960s and 1970s and identified strongly with her struggle for advancement.
White women preferred Clinton to Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama by an average of 24 percentage points in this year’s Democratic contests, according to exit polls. She even carried this group in 70 percent of the primaries Obama won. In a nod to the challenge, Obama himself lavished praise on Clinton last week for breaking barriers, a contrast to some instances in the campaign when he seemed more dismissive, such as in an early debate when Obama said, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
Without a template to follow, Clinton successfully navigated the “double bind” women face as political candidates, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University: How to project toughness without being dismissed as too strident.
“We saw her blaze a trail … that women can be strong and knowledgeable and have the tenacity to be commander-in-chief, while still talking about issues of families and children,” Walsh said.