Young Feminists Split: Does Gender Matter?

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- The two students walked on the same paths across campus here this week, past the dormitory where Hillary Rodham lived for four years, past two dozen framed portraits of groundbreaking women in Alumnae Hall, past the banners on the quad proclaiming "Wellesley: Women Who Will." But Katie Chanpong and Aubre Carreon Aguilar -- feminists and political activists -- arrived at contradictory conclusions.

"If you're a woman, you vote for Hillary because of what it means to women everywhere," said Chanpong, a sophomore.

Carreon Aguilar, a senior, said: "If I'm supposed to vote for Hillary just because I'm a woman, that's kind of sexist."

Even here at Wellesley College, Hillary Rodham Clinton's alma mater and a historic bedrock of progressive feminist thought, support for the senator from New York hardly registers as unanimous. Instead, the election has inspired a debate at this women-only liberal arts college about what it means to be a feminist. Do you vote for a woman to shatter the glass ceiling and further the cause? Or do you make an empowered, individual decision that is not confined by gender?

How women across the country answer that question over the next month could largely determine the winner of the Democratic nomination. In Iowa, women -- particularly young women -- overwhelmingly supported Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and helped him win the caucuses. Five days later in New Hampshire, Clinton won 45 percent of the female vote compared with 36 for Obama, forging her comeback.

Election debates take on a particular fervor here on the suburban Boston campus where Clinton lived from 1965 to 1969. On the worn sofas in the lobby of Pendleton Hall, about 30 students gather each Sunday evening to organize Wellesley support for Clinton, surrounded by remnants of her time here. Next to the Pendleton lounge is the office of professor Alan Schechter, who advised Clinton on her senior thesis 40 years ago. An autographed photo of Clinton hangs on a door. A button attached to a nearby bulletin board reads "It used to be a man's world."

For about an hour every week, the students brainstorm ways to help Clinton -- their Wellesley sister, they sometimes call her -- win the nomination. The Students for Hillary group set up a phone bank at school for making cold calls to voters and arranged more than 20 road trips to knock on doors in New Hampshire. "We feel tied to her, like she's one of us since she went here," said Chanpong, the group's communications director. "We'd try anything to help."

Hours after the Clinton meetings, a Students for Obama group occupies the same couches in Pendleton. Led by Carreon Aguilar and another Wellesley senior, the 10 members also shuttled back and forth to New Hampshire on weekends this fall. They visited dorm rooms and distributed Obama '08 brochures and signs, one of which now hangs on a door down the hall from Clinton's old room. "We tried to make sure it wasn't all Clinton, all the time," Carreon Aguilar said.

Ona Keller, the co-president of Wellesley College Democrats, spent time with both the Obama and Clinton groups for almost a year, but few classmates doubted her ultimate conviction. Keller often wears her mom's hand-me-down T-shirts from the women's rights movement in the 1960s, with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment printed across the chest. She calls younger classmates first-years instead of freshmen, because none of them are men.

Keller tells friends she is "hard-core Wellesley": proud to attend a school that has never had a male president; proud to walk through the same halls as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the former first lady of China.

"Everybody who knows me thinks of me as a feminist," Keller said. "Nobody imagined I wouldn't vote for Clinton."

Three weeks ago, Keller changed her online Facebook profile to announce her support for Obama. She likes his rhetoric and his stance on the war, she said, and she considers his effort to become the first black president as historic as Clinton's bid. Within a few days, a handful of Wellesley friends had called or e-mailed to teasingly call her a traitor.

"It's like I'm ruining this great opportunity for women by not voting for her, but honestly I'm not too worried about that," Keller said. "I don't think gender is a good enough reason on its own to vote for or against anybody. I'm sure there are going to be other women in my generation, soon, who are able to run for president. This isn't like our only chance."

Her stance is what some professors on campus refer to as an "inevitability attitude," and they say it marks a generational divide. Women who experienced Wellesley in the 1950s and '60s, such as Clinton, enrolled at a time when some Ivy League schools still refused to admit women. They believed, intrinsically, that they would have to scrap and claw for every opportunity in an unfair world. Wellesley functioned as their cocoon, a place for camaraderie and support before they were sent off as graduates to break barriers and challenge stereotypes. As feminists, they were linked by a cause.

The women of that generation now vote resoundingly for Clinton, poll numbers show, as if still bound by the urgency instilled 40 years ago. It's an urgency that their daughters, products of a less-sexist time, sometimes lack.

A woman for president ?

"I'm sure there are a lot of women my age who are kind of moving up the ranks, doing whatever they're doing politically and could maybe be president," Carreon Aguilar said. "The way I look at it with Obama is that both candidates are really minorities. Both would be huge firsts, so that sort of takes away the reason to vote just because of somebody being a woman or being black."

A woman for president ?

"That has an unbelievable 'Wow!' factor for those of us who have been around for a while and who have delved in the academics of this," said Linda Carli, a Wellesley psychology professor who co-wrote a book on gender and politics. "Some students believe all gender issues are already solved and this remarkable progress will just come, and that's overly optimistic. There's this sense that there's been a massive social change and everything is resolved. That's a very naive point of view."

Senior Kirstin Neff set a self-imposed deadline, the end of the 2007 spring semester, for aligning herself with a candidate. The co-president of Wellesley College Democrats, Neff badly wanted a summer internship with Clinton or Obama. But she felt torn between the two candidates . . . between two generations of feminists . . . between optimism that a woman will one day win and the feeling that it needs to happen now.

When Neff traveled home to Arizona for spring break, her deadline approaching, she confessed to her mother that she had started to lean toward supporting Obama. A five-minute conversation changed her mind.

"My mom didn't like hearing me talk about Obama much at all," Neff said. "She started telling me about how our generation takes for granted a lot of advances that women have made. She told me what it was like in the '70s and '80s and, you know, the general feeling that you were never as good or as important as your brothers or the men who you worked with. She talked about how women's stakes are so tied up in Hillary's candidacy, and how it could change what it means to be a woman and what all these little girls will think is possible in their own lives.

"So I just kind of started thinking about it like that, and it was like, 'Hmm. Okay. Do I really want to step in front of all of that?' "

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