(WOMENSENEWS)–Forty-some women listened intently last week in the cream and burgundy living room of inveterate Democratic fundraiser Sally Minard’s Manhattan brownstone, as campaign advisor Ann Lewis described why Hillary Clinton, if she is to make history by becoming the first woman president of the U.S., needs them, and thousands more like them, to be her "ambassadors." Thousands of women speaking one to one and to small gatherings, writing letters to the editor and turning their e-mail lists into potent viral marketing networks are essential to a successful campaign.
"It’s up to the women," Lewis said.
As announced yesterday, Clinton is making a major appeal to women during women’s history month, and for good reason.
Personal validation by trusted friends was crucial to Clinton’s first U.S. Senate race in 2000, when she needed to convince wary New Yorkers that she wasn’t a celebrity with an enormous carpetbag but a serious, smart, hardworking candidate who empathized with her constituents’ needs and would bring home the bacon. Judging by her 2-1 re-election in 2006, she won over even skeptical conservative upstate voters quite nicely.
But can our first viable female presidential candidate president replicate those strategies nationwide? Will Clinton’s seemingly natural base–women–lift her to victory in her party’s nomination, let alone the general election? Shouldn’t women support Hillary in the same way support from African Americans is beginning to sway toward Barack Obama?
Why, 135 years after suffragist Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president, must we still ask whether women will seize this moment to create gender equality in America’s top leadership?
Sure, some women oppose Clinton’s political philosophy: Democrats often disagree with her position on Iraq, for example; Republicans are often allergic to her belief that government can and should solve problems. These are legitimate differences. But we’ve seen time after time that the deciding factors in elections are perceptions of a candidate’s personality and how she or he might affect us personally.
‘Not Ready for One of Us’ Fear
Some of women’s resistance to Clinton is rooted not in ideology but in four fear-based factors which Hillary and her ambassadors must defeat if she is to become president:
First there’s fear of the readiness test.
Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s presidential campaign manager and now a political consultant, observes that despite much progress, oppressed groups still tend to assume the rest of society "isn’t ready for one of us." That’s why more whites than blacks say America is ready for a black president and more men than women say America is ready for a woman president.
In our diverse nation, how will we "get ready" for a woman, or an African American or Latino or Mormon, if they don’t run?
‘I Love Hillary BUT’
Second is the "I love Hillary BUT" factor. But she carries Bill’s baggage. But she’s polarizing. The demographic of women most like Clinton is the one that voices the most reservations. While 59 percent of women view Clinton favorably, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last July, her stronghold is among 18- to 35-year-old women, a whopping 73 percent of whom view her favorably.
The older women are the generation who fought for the laws and social climate that make a viable Hillary Clinton candidacy possible. Many say she’s a great senator, forgetting how she overcame the same "buts" in 2000, yet are dead set against her run for president. These women worry that if Clinton loses, they lose–that it will set back their accomplishments for women; they are clearly wary of that risk.
Young women are not immune to this fear. At the Ambassadors meeting, a professor described students who like Clinton very much but are afraid she can’t win and "they fear losing." The professor was advised to take her students for pizza and walk them through data illustrating Clinton’s elect-ability. For a woman not to run at this historic moment presents a far bigger risk to everything these women hold dear.
Next, there’s the fear instilled by media maulings. The national media tends to trash any leading candidate. Still, women are singled out for criticism if they appear too "feminine" on one hand or too tough on the other.
I call this the Maureen Dowd effect. In a stunning display of sexist language, the New York Times columnist last December called a tiff between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman a "catfight." About Clinton, Dowd wrote that as first lady she "showed off a long parade of unflattering outfits and unnervingly changing hairdos" and that when Clinton "expressed outrage about Iraq," she "ended up sounding like a mother whose teen-age son has not cleaned up his room."
There will inevitably be vicious "Swift boating" too. It’s instinctive to back away from attacks. But it’s more constructive to get angry and call out the media’s misdeeds.
Fear of Identification With Imperfection
Fourth is the Arianna Huffington paradox.
Huffington criticizes Hillary for doing what every politician who ever got elected does; crafting positions that attract a broad spectrum of voters. Huffington characterizes this as being inauthentic and she has a point. It’s similar to how Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front runner, is trying to assure the Republican Right he really hates abortion and didn’t mean it when he appeared in drag.
Paradoxically, though, Huffington reserves her fiercest vitriol for the candidate of her own gender and her own party. Perhaps the author of "Fearless" fears being defined by a female leader she doesn’t like more than throwing the election to men with whom she agrees even less.
Activist Sherrye Henry identified a "deep divide" in her 1994 book by that name between the equality women say they want and how they vote. Does this divide still exist? Are women our own worst enemy, as those who would like us to be claim?
The first female president will probably not be perfect in every way. Figure the odds of any president of either gender meeting that standard.
It is, as Ann Lewis said, up to the women.
America ranks 67th in percentage of female congress members, behind Pakistan, Liberia and Mexico. Women are heads of state in countries as disparate as Liberia, Chile and Germany, and their numbers are increasing globally.
Only when we have gender equality will we have the luxury of gender neutrality in our political choices. American women should get a grip, get over their fears and get together to create the tipping point for women seeking high public office.
Because in the end, our fear is not about Hillary Clinton. It’s about ourselves.
Gloria Feldt is co-author of "Send Yourself Roses . . . and Other Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leading Roles" (Springboard 2008). Formerly president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she writes and speaks on women’s lives from where the personal and political meet. She is a Women’s eNews 21 Leader for the 21st century 2007.
For more information:
Media Matters for America:
Courtney E. Martin, AlterNet: "Does Being a Feminist Mean Voting for Hillary?":
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