WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–With enough delegates to clinch the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination Tuesday night, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama accepted his party’s nod as the primary season came to a close.

“After 54 hard fought contests, our primary season has finally come to an end,” he told supporters in St. Paul, Minn. “Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another.”

In a rousing speech to supporters, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton did not concede defeat and revealed no immediate plans to step off the stage.

“I understand a lot of people are asking, ‘What does Hillary want?'” she proclaimed, adding: “I want nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard, and no longer invisible.”

Clinton said she will consult supporters and party leaders to determine her course of action. “This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight.”

But with her second-place finish, political observers began to ponder Clinton’s legacy.

“Hillary being in the race will change the face of politics forever,” said Faith Winter, national field director for the White House Project, a bipartisan advocacy group in New York that works to elect women to all levels of politics.

Many assert Clinton’s campaign will inspire more women to run for office and hasten the day when women reach parity in government.

The effects of Clinton’s trailblazing run ripple beyond the political arena, said Toby Graff, a spokesperson for Lifetime Television, a women’s cable station that is co-sponsoring a project to increase female political participation.

Clinton has “shown more women and girls that anything is possible, and that they can shoot for whatever they like, including the presidency,” she said.

Final Victory in South Dakota

Clinton, who has reportedly said she is open to the vice presidency, carried South Dakota but lost Montana Tuesday, according to projections by CNN, and Obama was declared the presumptive party nominee moments after the South Dakota polls closed.

The contests followed a June 1 primary in Puerto Rico, where Clinton crushed Obama with 68 percent of the vote.

Yet on May 31, the Democratic National Committee rang the death knell on her campaign when it agreed to give delegates from Michigan and Florida a half vote to penalize them for violating party scheduling rules. The decision took away Clinton’s last real hope for overtaking Obama in the delegate count.

With additional delegates from Tuesday’s contests and a rush of new commitments from superdelegates, Obama nudged past the 2,118 votes needed to clinch the nomination, prompting all but Clinton’s most die-hard supporters to consider the impact of her failed bid for the presidency.

“It’s such a visible statement of women’s competence, and it is a building block for women in politics and women voters too,” said Vicky Lovell, a vice president at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Exit polls in scores of primaries and caucuses across the country showed women turning out to the polls in large majorities this year. And women gave Clinton nearly half of donations over $200 that came from individuals, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in elections. Obama got 42 percent of those kind of large-dollar contributions from women.

In the recent past, women represented less than 30 percent of candidate contributions.

‘Hillary Effect’ Delayed

So far, the “Hillary Effect” on the pipeline hasn’t been realized. Women have not filed statements of candidacy in unusually high numbers, said Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. And women are not expected to break the record set in 1992, the Year of the Woman, when women nearly doubled their ranks in Congress.

The Hillary Effect may not be visible until 2010, Morales said. “With statewide and congressional races, we’ll probably see something in two years,” she said.

The White House Project, which runs training programs across the country for female political hopefuls, claims dividends are paying out.

“We’re seeing a lot of women get excited and get involved,” said Winter, of the project. “If we see this influx and infusion of new energy this year, you’re going to see that play out in the next couple of years.”

Clinton also raised the visibility of some women’s issues, such as the wage gap, an issue she highlighted throughout the campaign.

But even some of her most ardent supporters in the women’s rights community said she could have done more to put issues of particular concern to women such as child care and domestic violence on the national agenda.

Obama did not make women’s issues “a major discussion point,” said Gloria Feldt, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York, adding: “Hillary didn’t serve herself well because she didn’t do it either.”

Stubborn Strains of Sexism

And Clinton’s candidacy shined a high beam on stubborn strains of sexism, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group in Washington, D.C., that works to elect pro-choice women to office. “This campaign has unveiled sexism as none of us thought existed,” she said. “It’s like some feral object; it’s just out of control.”

The depth of sexist attitudes became apparent in national news media coverage of Clinton, Giesen said. A Feb. 1 media study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., showed that from Dec. 16 through Jan. 27, five out of six on-air evaluations of Obama were favorable but only half of Clinton were.

Giesen said sexist comments in the media serve as a rallying cry for women’s rights advocates. “There is a definite second act that comes after this election. Even if she got the nomination, what we have looked at is a real resistance to women in power, and a fear. And we’ve got to do a lot to educate people.”

On the flip side, Clinton’s campaign shattered stereotypes that women are not as tough as men, Lovell said, and proved that they can compete–and win–a major campaign.

“Women who are politically ambitious will see how successful Hillary was,” she said. “I would think that would have to have a motivating effect.”

But it may be a long time before female political hopefuls will have another good shot at the nation’s top office, said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts.

“If Hillary can’t even get the nomination, I don’t think we’ll see another woman run and win until my daughter is a grandparent,” she said at a March 30 panel in Boston.

Barbara Lee, founder of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., a foundation that supports programs (including Women’s eNews) aimed at increasing women’s representation in politics, public policy and the news media, took a sunnier tone.

“Her campaign is a triumph,” she said. “Now it will be real to daughters that yes, they can grow up to be president.'”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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