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The Force of Gender

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Gender," Gloria Steinem wrote in the New York Times, "is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House."

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Later that day, Hillary Clinton's victory in New Hampshire made her the first woman to win a presidential primary.

Is Clinton hampered by her gender as she fights for the Democratic nomination? I think the reality is neither as dire as Steinem suggests nor as benign as those of us who would like to see a woman elected president would wish.

Clinton herself has recently sounded like Steinem by way of Tammy Wynette: 1992's invocation of "Stand by Your Man" has morphed into "Sometimes It's Hard to Be a Woman."

As the candidate said last week, "It's hard being a woman out there. It is obviously challenging with some of [the] things that are said, that are not even personal to me so much as they are about women."

The burden of two X chromosomes, Clinton suggested, has made hers a tougher climb: "Now every so often I just wish that it were a little more of an even playing field, but, you know, I play on whatever field is out there."

This complaint is a little hard to take from someone who entered the race as the Official Candidate of the Democratic Establishment. Clinton might not have been born on third base, to paraphrase the late Texas governor Ann Richards on George W. Bush, but she began the campaign with the equivalent of a triple.

The candidate of inevitability and the victim of the uneven playing field aren't compatible concepts.

If anything, the playing field has been demographically tilted in Clinton's favor. Women account for nearly six in 10 Democratic primary voters. In October, when it seemed almost a given that Clinton would win the nomination, Clinton strategist Mark Penn bragged about her edge with women and predicted that 24 percent of Republican women could defect in the general election. I don't recall any complaints about field conditions then.

Clinton's loss, if it comes to that, will have more to do with squandered and mismanaged resources; a shapeless, shifting message; a loose-lipped spouse; and arrogant strategists who dismissed the threat from Barack Obama and assumed the past would predict the future.

Yet I'm not arguing that gender has been irrelevant in this campaign. How could it be with the first serious female candidate for the White House?

The gender gap in Clinton's support is persistent -- and striking. In every Post-ABC News poll since December, Clinton's support among women has significantly exceeded her backing among men, with differences ranging from the mid- to high teens. In the latest poll, Clinton trailed Obama among men 35 to 57 percent, even as she clung to a narrow lead, 50 to 45 percent, among women.


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