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When young women don't vote for women

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut explains three themes that emerge often when discussing women in politics.

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Geraldine Ferraro recalls the specific moment in 2008 when she lost it. It was Super Tuesday, the day in early February when millions of Democratic primary voters across the nation headed to the polls. Ferraro, the former vice presidential nominee and at that point the only woman ever to have run on a national presidential ticket, anxiously waited for the results to come in -- desperately hoping that Hillary Clinton had managed to turn around her campaign for the presidential nomination.

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And then Ferraro got a call from one of her grown daughters, who had just returned from a polling station in Massachusetts.

"Did you vote?" Ferraro asked.

"Yes," her daughter replied.

"Who'd you vote for?" Ferrraro asked.

There was a pause.

"Barack Obama," her daughter quietly confessed.

Ferraro flipped -- becoming, in her words, "a lunatic."

"What is the matter with you?" she screamed into the receiver. "You know Hillary. You have seen my involvement with her."

Her daughter struggled to explain, saying Obama just inspired her. "What does he inspire you to do, leave your husband and three kids and your practice and go work for Doctors Without Borders?" Ferraro snapped in response.

Ferraro was livid, and distraught. What more did Hillary Clinton have to do to prove herself? How could anyone -- least of all Ferraro's own daughter -- fail to grasp the historic significance of electing a woman president, in probably the only chance the country would have to do so for years to come? Ferraro hung up enraged, not so much at her daughter but at the world. Clinton was being unfairly cast aside, and, along with her, the dreams of a generation and a movement.

As the primaries played on that spring, the same scene played out in living rooms from coast to coast. Mothers and grandmothers who saw themselves in Clinton and formed the core of her support faced a confounding phenomenon: Their daughters did not much care whether a woman won or lost. There was nothing, in their view, all that special about electing a woman -- particularly this woman -- president. Not when the milestone of electing an African American president was at hand.

Clinton, the former first lady and one of the most famous women in the world, had spent all of 2007 as the overwhelming front-runner, leading in all the national polls and raising huge amounts of cash. She looked like the inevitable nominee, and her effortless climb reinforced what young women thought they knew: Pretty much every battle of the sexes had already been waged and won. Raised in a world where women made up more than half of all undergraduates on college campuses and half of the students in all law and medical schools, where discrimination was illegal, where nearly half the work force was female and their mothers had been free to work -- or not -- younger women were not drawn to Clinton by any sense of history, and they recoiled at being told they should be. Feminism had long ago been declared dead, then rendered meaningless.

To younger voters, Clinton was both a relic of that era and a victim of its success. She was the wrong woman at the wrong time; she was a Clinton; she hadn't gotten there on her own; a woman could be elected another year. After all, the reasoning went, it would be easy enough next time. Look how simple it had been for her.

The generational divide would rip through families and the feminist movement, exposing a fault line that had been lurking under the surface for years. Daughters heard from mothers everywhere. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) decided to endorse Obama rather than Clinton, she got an earful from her mother back home. "I guess some people will do what some people have to do," her mother said in an acerbic voice mail message, adding: "but for some of us, this will be our last election."


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