To Women, So Much More Than Just a Candidate

Sens. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.), and Hillary Rodham Clinton, (D-N.Y.), campaign hard ahead of primaries on Tuesday, March 4, in Ohio and Texas, contests that could make or break Clinton's campaign. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also make last-minute pitches to voters in the two states.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

AKRON, Ohio -- Staring out at more than 100 empty seats in the small downtown auditorium, Marion Wagner looked quizzically at the podium and its state-of-the-art sound system. "Do I really need to talk into a microphone if there's hardly anybody here?" she asked.

Wagner, a regional director for the National Organization for Women, had driven seven hours from Indianapolis to speak here last week along with half a dozen other prominent feminists in a last-ditch effort to exhort female voters to get behind the presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"The issue that's not being talked about in this campaign is the blatant sexism," Wagner said, her words echoing off the granite walls. "There are some people who promote Barack Obama because they want anybody but a woman. Would they like a white man instead of a black man? Of course. But they'll take a black man over a woman. I never thought, in 2008, that we'd still be dealing with this."

Although women have been the dominant force in the Democratic race, making up nearly six in 10 voters in caucuses and primaries, things have not gone the way Wagner and other feminist supporters of Clinton expected. The same campaign they once celebrated as a sign of tremendous progress, with its promise of the first female president in the nation's history, has instead reinforced their impressions of gender inequity.

Clinton goes into today's crucial primaries in Texas and Ohio with her candidacy on the line, and Wagner believes it is ignorance and bigotry that undermined it. As Wagner and other NOW executives toured Ohio last week, they repeated a resounding message: Clinton has been mistreated by an opponent who subtly demeans her, by a mainstream media that ridicules her, by voters too threatened to vote for a confident woman, by young women who no longer feel the urgency of the women's movement, by African American women for whom race is more important than gender.

While they came here to galvanize support among grass-roots leaders, and maybe even win over some undecided voters, by focusing on Clinton's record on women's issues, they just as often ended up commiserating about how sexism -- "the worst of the 'isms,' " they said here -- continues to thrive. They point to the way Obama pulled out Clinton's chair before each debate, immediately establishing the upper hand in their interaction. "You can bet that's a calculated move," Wagner said, "and it's absolutely demeaning."

The way debate moderators interrupted Clinton in the middle of her answers on national television, putting her in what feminists call an impossible situation: Cede to the men and come off looking meek and unpresidential, or speak louder and risk feeding her reputation as an aggressive whiner.

The way Clinton was insulted on television so often that Lana Moresky, a Clinton fundraiser from Cleveland, had to switch the channel. "They call her a werewolf, a witch, an old hag," Moresky said. "I think a lot of women are really in shock about it, and they're going to feel gypped if she loses. Barack will still be another man in charge."

The way the Internet is overloaded with message boards full of male chauvinists who believe that Clinton is a candidate only because of her husband, and with Web sites that market a product called the Hillary Nutcracker -- a figurine of Clinton in a business suit that cracks walnuts between the knees.

"She's taken every bullet they can fire at her," said Marj Signer, president of NOW's Virginia chapter, who traveled around Ohio with the group. "They try to bury her, to vaporize her. They make her out to be a bimbo. I guess the message is that women are still fair game. It's an atmosphere where this is still okay."

Like most women who came to the NOW events last week, Wagner said she never expected gender to become a determinant in this election. After all, these are issues she fought more than 30 years ago, after she purchased the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972 and decided to join the feminist movement. A social worker, she moved from California to Indiana and devoted five years to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. When Indiana became the 35th state to ratify, in 1977, Wagner thought "that all the old problems would just disappear," she said.

Three decades -- and still no ERA -- later, Wagner walked into the lobby of a hotel in suburban Cleveland during a snowstorm last week. A small sticker on her jacket read: Hillary -- I'm ready. As she waited to check into the hotel, a man noticed the sticker and approached her.

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