Outlook: Clinton Spurned by Her Own Demographic

Linda Hirshman
Feminist Author
Monday, March 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

"From the moment the primary season began, the group 'women' divided along racial lines. Black women have backed Obama by more than 78 percent. But even after subtracting that group, white women (including Hispanics) are still the single largest demographic in the party, at 44 percent. ... So why is she trailing as the contest heads into Ohio and Texas? The answer is class ... each passing week since Super Tuesday has seen a further erosion in support for the senator from New York among the educated classes. In Wisconsin, she won a minority of college-educated women. And unless there's some sort of miracle turnaround in Ohio and Texas, this is what may cost her the Democratic nomination."

Feminist author Linda Hirshman, author of " Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," was online Monday, March 3 at noon ET to discuss how and why educated white women increasingly are leaving Hillary to vote for Barack Obama -- a rare demographic split in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Hirshman wrote an earlier Outlook article on women and Hillary in January 2007: You've Come a Long Way, Maybe

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Linda Hirshman: Hello. Linda Hirshman here. I thought I might start this chat about my piece yesterday with an excerpt from one of the many e-mails I received. This one just came in this morning:

"It's unfortunate that women don't have someone better than her to represent 'them.' Many men (myself a white, college educated, 41-year-old male) would gladly support a woman, and not a woman who acts like a man. At the end of the day we all come from a woman, and what person is more honored than our mother?

"There will forever be a bias, I believe, with men toward a female leader. It is only natural; women have their subconscious expectations of men after all. I believe that many men would support a 'strong' woman, but a woman who is also feminine and maternal -- and no, not subordinate. For most of us men these are qualities, which we respect and recognize in that other gender, Hillary doesn't exude. Her comment about not staying home to "bake cookies and make tea" revealed for me her true essence, and an essence I simply don't like. My mother did things like go to my soccer games and put in the roast on Sunday. Hillary's comments were offensive to my mother.

"Don't look at Hillary's unpopularity as a referendum on women. She's but one.

"Should the right one come around I'd be thrilled to vote for a woman as a president."

What is the right response for women seeking a full political role in this democratic republic to an environment in which this letter is one of the less-offensive responses to a female candidate?


Bethesda, Md.: Did you find it insulting that The Post paired your piece with the nitwit rant from Charlotte Allen?

Linda Hirshman: Thank you for asking. They did not consult me; surprise.

But let me take this opportunity to say what interests me: not Clinton vs. Obama as candidates -- actually, I never said vote for Clinton, if you actually look at what I wrote -- but how American women approach power now, 44 years after the publication of "The Feminine Mystique." All the mediums of communication -- the blogs, the cable shows, the mainstream media -- are filled to overflowing with the thousand reasons why the female candidate is imperfect and therefore should not be supported. The counterargument is crudely and strategically posited as "voting with your uterus" thus stripping the centuries-long practice of representation through democratic politics of any semblance of legitimacy.

What I tried to sort out was why women -- particularly well-educated and therefore somewhat more politically interested and knowledgeable women -- bought into this manifestly disempowering model of politics.


Natick, Mass.: I found your article interesting up until the last paragraph where you write that Penn's biggest mistake may have been underestimating "the fickleness" of the female voter. I find that word, frankly, on the edge of sexist, if not downright condescending. It makes it sound like it's a weakness of the female voter -- we're so fickle (weak, flighty, trivial, etc.) -- rather than a weakness of the campaign to assume they had the vote locked up, or a weakness of the candidate, who has relatively high negatives that have nothing to do with her gender. Why did you choose this word?

Linda Hirshman: I chose it because of the song in "Rigoletto," but it reflects my concern that women do not recognize or understand how their voting numbers represent a crude but effective route to power, and how much of what they hate about the world (the ones I hear from anyway) -- like the Charlotte Allen column, and the behavior of the men on MSNBC -- is simply the behavior of powerful people confronted with powerless people. Can anyone imagine the media treating, say, Dick Cheney with the staggering condescension leveled at Clinton, even after he was the author of one of the most disastrous foreign policy adventures in the history of the American Republic?


Harrisburg, Pa.: Why is Hillary Clinton not winning a large share of the female vote such an issue? It long has been noted that women do not vote as a bloc. Indeed, many women disagree on feminist issues and are more apt to vote on a partisan basis or on ideology. Granted, the female vote may trend more in a certain direction. Thus, isn't the female vote trending more toward Hillary Clinton? Second, has the female vote ever voted as a bloc, and if so, in what elections did it do so?

Linda Hirshman: Well, it's the Democratic primary, so the partisan divide is neither here nor there. Pretty much everyone agrees that the two candidates are relatively close ideologically, so I am wondering why women in the Democratic primary did not seize the chance to flex their electoral muscle.


Support a woman, and not a woman who acts like a man: Yikes! I am a young feminist (27) and am shocked that there are still people who would utter the phrases in the e-mail you cited. I am an Obama supporter, I found your article extremely interesting, and I wish this chat lasted five hours instead of one, as I am very curious to read some more of the responses you get. I think that sexism is a much bigger factor in this primary than racism, and that surprised the heck out of me. I'm curious as to what will happen to the feminist movement as a result of Clinton's campaign.

Linda Hirshman: I have written a book, "Get to Work," which addresses the contemporary behavior of college-educated women in the marketplace and am starting to pull together my thoughts, of which this was the second piece, on contemporary college-educated women's behavior in the political arena. I see a global failure to engage with the reality of power as characteristic of both arenas. Even I, nasty and acid-tongued commentator that I am, was surprised by women's refusal of the opportunity the Clinton candidacy presented. But I am hoping to pull all this together into a big piece on just your question someone asked. What do we now know about women as a "movement" following the primary election of 2008?


Arlington, Va.: Given that college-educated white men didn't support Edwards enough to be a Democratic contender, why didn't the media read that as demographic traitorism? And does this election demonstrate that white women are more egalitarian than expected?

Linda Hirshman: I'm thinking that sex is more repellent than race. With good question, because there certainly was nothing wrong with John Edwards as a candidate. And given the history of America, it's surely good news on the very important racial front. I completely understand why black Democratic voters, male and female, voted around 80 percent for an African American candidate -- numbers never approached in any other demographic, whatever the candidate's virtue. I have been wondering why women don't see the democratic system of representation as working similarly for them. Setting aside the crosscut group of black women, who must decide what matters to them more.


Washington: I disagree strongly with your conclusion that women aren't strategic enough to form a political movement directed at taking power. The problem is the candidate we're being asked/expected to coalesce around. There are many other women out there -- on both sides of the aisle -- who are as accomplished as Hillary Clinton but who don't start out in this race with 47 percent negative favorabilty. Kathleen Sebelius, Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Janet Napolitano, just to name a few...

Linda Hirshman: I hear this all the time, the hypothetical "perfect woman." Hutchison and Snowe have been behind every Republican mistake of the past eight years; why exactly would they be better?

Janet Napolitano signed one of the most retrograde immigration bills in the history of the American republic, with implications for the economy of Arizona that remain hideously in the waiting right now. I don't know much about Sebelius, although her speaking skills on the State of the Union rebuttal made Hillary sound like Demosthenes -- and wasn't she elected from a family of local politicians? Father? Father-in-law? That sort of mimics Clinton's spousal assistance. I don't have the data in front of me. And didn't the Kansas Republican Party self-destruct in advance of her improbable election? Why do I say all this? Because there is no such thing as a perfect political candidate. But somehow that standard only gets applied when there's a woman on the scene.


Westwood, Mass.: Ms. Hirshman, when a woman politician values women's votes more than mine (I am a man) I tend to walk away and seek another candidate. I think women will have to confront the fact that "playing gender" is very divisive and maybe a losing strategy in politics. It certainly is for my vote.

Linda Hirshman: But you see there are fewer of you than there are of women, so in that contest you lose. The only reason you are not losing is that women are playing your game, which is what I am wondering about.


Alpharetta, Ga.: Your article is highly flawed in terms of numbers. As Ron Brownstein pointed out, Hillary Clinton won college educated women in California. They didn't follow lockstep behind Maria Shriver. And losses in polls recently have come among white men, not college women.

Linda Hirshman: My numbers are correct -- her support among college women was slow to develop, lasted but a brief time, and slid back into negative numbers in Wisconsin. The latest numbers, as of the writing, were negative amongst college women. Check out Gary Langer's excellent columns on the ABC Web site.


Inside the Beltway: Would you also expect women to coalesce around a female Republican candidate?

Linda Hirshman: This keeps coming up so I might as well answer it, even though it is stupidly obvious. The point is that a vote, and endorsements particularly, are always a balance of interests. With the head-on contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the obvious reasons -- pro-choice judges, and the like -- are ruled out, and yet the most educated women still find reason not to support the female candidate. That is what attracted my attention. I had been ignoring these dull questions because the answer is so obvious, but I see people keep thinking how clever they are to try to trap a speaker with it, so I'll answer it for the millionth time. But try to think of something more clever before you go public again, okay Beltway?


Fredericksburg, Va.: Linda, what you just can't accept is that there are many, many women ... yes, college educated women too ... who are not feminists. They don't care about women being in "power." They are very offended by people like you who say that women shouldn't have the right to stay home and take care of their children if that's what they think is best for their family. And by the way, I have watched all the debates and an awful lot of the commentary on cable and I disagree that they are treating Hillary "condescendingly." I think they are treating her with kid gloves. What I find hard to understand is why anyone who is not a strong feminist (which includes most men) would support Hillary. I guess it's a kind of nostalgia for the Clinton administration.

Linda Hirshman: Turns out. So stay home -- I'm not Stalin, despite what people say.

I write about what society is like when people decide it's women who should stay home.


Linda Hirshman: Thanks for all the good questions. Keep thinking about these issues; they matter tremendously for the future of our society.


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