Caryl Rivers, noted journalist

Hillary Rodham Clinton, under attack, has stirred echoes in women of their own vulnerability. Recent polls indicate that sense may be outweighing their suspicion of the First Lady Senate candidate.

In the first New York Senate debate, Republican Rick Lazio walked across the stage and appeared to be bullying Clinton about her stance toward soft money. And in the second debate, Clinton was asked point-blank by a reporter why she stayed with her straying husband. Her answer, that she made a choice that was right for her and her family, cast her as an embattled woman forced to defend personal choices.

Women seemed to sympathize. The First Lady has been improving her numbers since the debate with a key group that had not been going her way: female voters.

Given the fact that Clinton has had to work so hard for women’s support when pundits assumed she was a shoo-in, the question must be asked: Are women generally harder on political candidates of their own sex than on men?

With Hillary Rodham Clinton, polling data suggests this has been the case.

The First Lady once said in an interview, “I’m a transitional figure,” and she may have deftly put her finger on her problem. She mixes traditional “stand by your man” femininity with corporate-lawyer feminism. This seems to make women, wrestling with their own issues in that area, uncomfortable.

Pollsters report that women are suspicious because Clinton’s fame came second-hand. One woman I know, a single professional, says, “I made it on my own. But Hillary rode on the coattails of her husband.” Reporters often hear similar comments from women.

But men with famous names, it seems, get a pass, even though they didn’t earn the luster of those names. George W. Bush was bankrolled in his every business venture by friends of his famous father. If his name were George W. Smith, would he be the governor of Texas, or running for president?

Al Gore often mentions shoveling manure on a Tennessee farm, but he was raised in Washington, D.C., the son of a famous senator. Has Hillary Clinton done more coattail-riding than the nominees of the two major parties?

It is asked, often by women, “What has Hillary really done?” She hasn’t been a governor or a cabinet member or a captain of industry. But neither has Pat Buchanan, whose resume is much like hers–policy adviser to presidents. Few say Buchanan should not be considered for high office simply because he never ran for any office other than president or never met a payroll.

Hillary Clinton is also criticized because she’s using her celebrity for political advantage. But what about Ronald Reagan? He was a famous movie star and a TV pitchman for General Electric before he ran for governor of California. Talk about starting at the top.

Women tell pollsters they are suspicious of Hillary Clinton’s motives. Is she running to erase her humiliation after her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky? But do these same women question the motives of the men who run for high office? Isn’t George W. out to avenge his father’s loss to Hillary’s husband? Is dynastic revenge a more noble reason for running for office than a wish to change one’s image from victim to victor? And a driving force for the entire political career of Al Gore is said to be his father’s loss of a Senate seat.

When people run for office, there are always personal reasons at play. John F. Kennedy ran for president as a surrogate for his older brother, Joe, who was killed in World War II. Richard Nixon said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” when he lost the race for governor of California. When he later ran for president, wasn’t vengeance part of his agenda? Wasn’t actor’s ego at play when Ronald Reagan tried out for the part of his life, president of the United States? Didn’t Al Smith cherish the hope that being the first Catholic president would avenge all those anti-Catholic slurs he’d had to suffer in his political life? Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate with his “Bull Moose” movement. Weren’t ego, revenge and frustration a part of that candidacy?

We rarely question the personal motives of the men who run for high office, if they seem to have a reasonable shot at the job. If a guy tosses his hat into the ring, we women (and men, too) seem to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why doesn’t Hillary Clinton get the same? She has lots of reasons to run for senate. Her whole life has been geared to public policy, and her tenure as First Lady has given her great visibility around the world.

If one of Clinton’s reasons for running is to carve out her place in history as a political mover and shaker in her own right, and to overshadow the image of the betrayed wife, why not? She’s human. The personal motive must be in there along with the more rarified ones–just the way it is with the guys.

Women should judge Hillary Rodham Clinton by her policies, not her perceived motives or the seemingly boorish behavior of a male opponent (although the candidate herself would certainly not look a gift horse in the mouth). If women like what she offers on such issues as reproductive choice, children, gun control, welfare and crime, they should vote for her. If not, they should vote for the guy. But they shouldn’t question her motives for running, unless they are prepared to do the same thing for all the guys.

This is one gender gap that ought to be banished for good.

Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University, is the author of “Camelot” and has written about presidents and First Ladies since the Kennedy administration.