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It's not personal

Critics should understand that not supporting Clinton isn't an attack on feminism.

May 21, 2008|Jonathan Chait | Jonathan Chait, a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior editor at the New Republic, is the author of "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics."

Over the last couple of weeks, people have stopped debating who is going to win the Democratic presidential nomination. And Tuesday, Barack Obama clinched a majority of pledged delegates, despite Hillary Rodham Clinton's lopsided wins in West Virginia last week and in Kentucky this week. The question now is whether Obama can win in a way that doesn't offend Clinton and her supporters. This is proving to be tricky. Obama has pointedly said that he won't call for Clinton to withdraw, and he even instructed his supporters to "be nice" to Clinton's fans. But it's not enough. Newspaper articles have been filled with the lamentations of Clinton supporters bitter at Obama and vowing not to vote for him in November.

The main grievance against Obama is that political pundits are saying the race is over and Clinton should quit. (I plead guilty.) Clinton's supporters are defining this as a form of sexism. Ellen Malcolm, founder of the liberal feminist group Emily's List, recently noted with bitter sarcasm, "The first woman ever to win a presidential primary is supposed to stop competing, to curtsy and exit stage right." And Clinton's race for the White House is in large part a campaign against sexism, so of course she must resist these calls. ("She's shown us over and over that winners never quit and that quitters never win," Malcolm writes.) Thus, the circular rationale for Clinton's candidacy is: Because people are calling for her to leave the race, she must stay in.

It's highly unusual for a mainstream presidential campaign to persist for so long with no purpose except self-perpetuation. But many people don't think of Clinton in normal political terms. She is viewed not as a politician, or even a person, but as a symbol of the strong woman.

The rise of women in the workplace over the last few decades is one of the most sweeping social transformations any society has undertaken. In the midst of this shift, Clinton entered the political scene as the first first lady to offer herself up as a co-equal partner to the presidency. Initially, this made her the focal point for a massive backlash by misogynists, or anybody who simply felt uneasy with changing gender relationships. Tens of millions of Americans, mostly men, developed an irrational hatred for her. It had little or nothing to do with Clinton or anything she had done. She simply represented the strong woman to them, and they hated her for it.

Likewise, tens of millions of feminists see Clinton as a stand-in for their own lives. Any setback to her is a setback for women. Her supporters frequently describe her campaign as a metaphor for women's struggle against the glass ceiling -- Clinton as the older woman written off or disdained for her abilities, Obama as a younger man who takes a job that should be hers.

Clinton supporters have repeatedly accused Obama of sexism. When asked the other day to cite examples of sexist behavior, Geraldine Ferraro mentioned Obama mocking Clinton for posing as a hunting buff, and, bizarrely, pretending to brush dirt off his shoulder in a speech. Of course, these things aren't sexist at all. The Clinton die-hards see the mere fact that Obama would run against Clinton as an act of sexism.

I should say that plenty of voters support Clinton for the same essential reasons they support other candidates: her character, her platform, etc. Many also support her because her opponent is black. But there remains an unshakable core of Clinton fans whose loyalty is a matter of identity.

Both sides have noted that the divide seems to run along generational lines. Gloria Steinem lamented earlier this year, "What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age."

Well, maybe. But more likely, the generation that lived the most dramatic aspect of the feminist revolution is the most likely to see Clinton in symbolic terms. It works both ways. Sixteen years ago, this newspaper quoted a 36-year-old homemaker (today she would be 52) bitter about Clinton's famous disdain for staying home to bake cookies and have teas.

But the generation that came after has mostly taken women in the workforce for granted. The 32-year-old liberal writer Michelle Goldberg expressed her mystification that older feminists "seem to identify with Clinton so profoundly that they interpret rejection of her as a personal rebuke."

I'm 36. My female classmates attended college looking for careers, not husbands to support them. My mother forged a career in business. People of my generation tend to have a less personal view of Clinton. She's not us, she's not our ex-wife, she's just a politician.

Typical politicians only stay in a campaign if they have a realistic prospect of winning. A majority of pledged delegates are now in Obama's camp, and with his total delegate lead nearly as large as the number of still-undecided superdelegates, Clinton's chances are essentially nil. But like the Japanese military in World War II, Clinton die-hards have a culture of perseverance. They see surrender as worse than defeat and fighting as a worthy end that need not have any real prospect of victory. In Tuesday's New York Times, a full-page ad from a group called WomenCount PAC announced, "Hillary's voice is OUR voice, and she's speaking for all of us."

It looks pretty crazy to those of us not old enough to fight in the second-wave feminist wars. If I spent years being disrespected and discriminated against in my household chores and my workplace, though, maybe I'd see it differently.

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