To Women, So Much More Than Just a Candidate

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.

"Ah, come on," he said. "A woman's place is in the kitchen."

The man laughed, and Wagner scowled at him. Too surprised to respond, she checked into her room and fumed alone. At that night's NOW event in Akron, she stood at the lectern and told the story.

"Would he have stopped a black man and said something derogatory like that?" Wagner asked. "No, I don't think so. But somehow sexism is still okay. We all know racism is endemic in this society, but people who would never dare to make a racist comment on purpose say sexist things all the time. We can't assume anymore that our fight is over."

The problem, NOW leaders said, is that too many young women have done exactly that, turning to Obama because they feel no obligation to vote for a historic first for their gender. Signer, a lifelong advocate of women's rights, has a 23-year-old daughter who "fell in love with Obama."

"She just doesn't relate to the fact that the opportunities she's had are because of people like Hillary," Signer said. "She's young, and she doesn't have our sense of urgency."

Iowa, where Obama outpolled Clinton among women by five percentage points, was the first sign of trouble. Since then, he has scored nearly as many double-digit wins among women as she has, primarily because black women have voted for him in overwhelming numbers.

"I really believe the biggest divide in the world is men versus women, but most people don't seem to feel that way," Signer said. "A lot of people identify with race first, and so that can mean Obama. They forget about sexism."

During the NOW tour across Ohio, the makeup of each audience was almost exclusively white, middle-age women, many of whom had joined the organization in the late 1960s or 1970s. NOW's infrastructure has faded in Ohio, where only a handful of cities still maintain active chapters. Nationally, the organization maintains about 500,000 members, a number that has remained fairly steady since NOW was founded in 1966. As the organization's membership ages, leaders have lowered membership fees and started chapters at colleges in an effort to attract younger women.

"The heyday was really when we were fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, and none of the chapters are as strong as they used to be," said Diane Dodge, NOW president in Ohio. "It's a different time. There's a sense of complacency."

The organization hoped to generate excitement by endorsing Clinton, marking only the second time NOW has publicly backed a presidential candidate. NOW leaders traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to campaign. The same formula they employed in Ohio was one they had relied on for months: Bring in successful women from around the country and let them answer voters' questions.

When the Akron event ended, the women helped pack up trays of uneaten snacks and cookies in the lobby. Dodge apologized to the other leaders for the paltry attendance. But she felt confident, she said, that their message would not go unheard for long.

"There are people who say, 'Your battle is over. There's no more sexism anymore,' " she said. "Well, at the very least, maybe the whole experience of this campaign will wake those people up."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company