Seeing Beyond Gender, Despite Shared Struggles

Laurie Tostenson of Lebanon, N.H. speaks about who she'll be voting for in the upcoming primary and why that person isn't Hillary. Video by Pierre Kattar/washingtonpost.comRead the story by Krissah Williams/The Washington Post
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

LEBANON, N.H. -- It took Laurie Tostenson years of mopping floors, washing sheets and "screaming twice as loud" as the men around her before she managed to change her janitors' scrubs for a blazer befitting a supervisor at New Hampshire's largest hospital.

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared last year that her candidacy was a chance to "shatter America's highest glass ceiling," Tostenson was just the kind of voter she was targeting. And by all rights, Tostenson should be a Clinton voter -- a career-oriented Democratic working woman who is most concerned about making health insurance more affordable and ending the Iraq war.

And yet . . .

Tostenson decided last week that she "couldn't get past a basic distrust I had for her and for some of her personal choices."

Clinton has targeted working-class women such as Tostenson, banking on their support to propel her to a historic victory in the primaries and in the general election in November. Dating to her first Senate race eight years ago, Clinton connected with them by describing herself as a strong woman who has overcome challenges. Many identify with her as a working mother. Others see her as a fighter for issues they care about, such as health care and education.

Clinton needs them to come through for her in a big way in New Hampshire, where she is trying to revive her campaign after a devastating third-place finish in Iowa last week. New Hampshire may be just as disappointing: Fifty-four percent of Democratic primary voters in 2004 were women, but in the most recent CNN/WMUR poll, Clinton was virtually even with Barack Obama.

At the start of the campaign here last year, Tostenson was leaning toward Clinton. She said she thought that electing a woman president could "break down walls for people who've been affected part and parcel by the 'good-old-boys club.' "

Both women were born to Republican parents, and, though they came of age more than a decade apart, both were affected by the women's rights movement and its focus on equal pay and gender equity. Tostenson gets Clinton when she tells the story of how awkward it was when she walked into her Little Rock law firm visibly pregnant. Tostenson has dealt with male bosses who gave her grief for staying home with her sick son.

And she didn't think it was so funny when a woman at a John McCain event in New Hampshire asked, "How do we beat the [B-word]," because Tostenson knew people in her line of work had said the same about her as she struggled to advance.

"You get a reputation after a while of being a certain way -- a witch with a different letter," said Tostenson, 44. "It makes me uncomfortable, because that's not who I am, and that's not who I like to be. I've resigned myself for many, many years to it."

Still, she thought Clinton was weak for not publicly demanding more respect from her husband after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. She said the whole episode was "humiliating." When Tostenson's first husband cheated, she forgave him for the sake of their family. The second time, she kicked him out and kept the house.

"You can do one of two things: You can be strong, or you can let it beat you up," Tostenson said. "She could have been a better example."

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