IOWA CITY — More than 150 people had crowded into the Java House, a coffee shop and performance space near the University of Iowa. Most of them were women. Most of them were young. All of them signed a caucus card for Hillary Clinton, then craned their necks for a view of writer, director and actor Lena Dunham. Joking and riffing on the controversial Iowa City episodes of her show "Girls," Dunham soon got to her speech — and got serious. Clinton, she said, was a true feminist who had fought for "women's rights" over a drumbeat of anger and sexism.
"I can't talk about Hillary Clinton without also acknowledging that she has survived horrific, gendered attacks on nearly every single aspect of her character with tremendous grace and aplomb," Dunham said. "The way she's been treated by the media is just more evidence of the anger that exists toward women, particularly ambitious women, and the way we are not allowed to exist on our own merits, rather than extensions of powerful men."
Young women were nodding their heads. "That really moves me," Dunham said. "It reminds me that we can all fight to rise above." She choked back tears, and the room went silent. "It really moves me," she said again.
Five minutes later, Dunham started the trek to Des Moines for another campaign stop. On social media, conservatives asked what Dunham was so moved by. "Lena Dunham is in favor of Bill Cosby going to hell, yet supports Hillary Clinton whose husband has also been accused of rape," tweeted a 19-year old conservative woman from Tennessee. "Hillary has a history of personally attacking women Bill physically attacked," another conservative tweeted.
In the 1990s, when media coverage and congressional investigators pored over Bill Clinton's sex life, Hillary Clinton often benefited from public sympathy. The millennial women whom Dunham is campaigning to reach have faded or gauzy memories of that period; a voter turning 18 on Election Day 2016 was in diapers when Bill Clinton was impeached. Conservatives, who have watched skeptically as the standards for sexual consent have evolved, are increasingly asking why old allegations against Bill Clinton should be treated any differently from the excavated accusations against Bill Cosby.
In the week before Dunham's Iowa swing, that argument had gained ground. Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas woman who claims that Clinton raped her 38 years ago, set up a Twitter account and made a fresh round of headlines. Donald Trump, the gleefully combative Republican front-runner, released a web video accusing both Clintons of attacking women and repeated that claim in interviews. The inherent question: Would women raised in the new millennium, unfamiliar with the long, legal vetting of the old Clinton stories, be inclined to believe the accusers and reject Clinton?
At Dunham's campaign stops, the answer was no.
"I think that's a bunch of crap," said Simone Sanders, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Iowa. "What Hillary Clinton did was make a personal decision about her marriage. That was their business. When people decide to attack women, it's because they don't want women to succeed."
"That is really rehashing old stuff that's been through the media," said Keri Neblett, 45, of Iowa City. "I mean, I don't necessarily respect Bill Clinton all that much. I feel he has done some things in his presidency that I didn't agree with and the way he does womanize — it bothers me. It doesn't hold me back from supporting Hillary because they are two different people and she deserves to run on her own right, not on what her husband does or doesn't do."
Yet Neblett admitted that she was leaning toward Sanders, in part because of the "baggage" that Clinton brings with her. "There's so many people on the other side that absolutely hate her," Neblett added.
No one who spoke to The Washington Post accepted the conservative argument that Clinton should be considered an enabler of abuse. In their opinion, the abuse is being carried out by opponents of the Clintons, who want to hurt the first potential female president. Joy Beadleston, 54, who had spoken publicly about her own sexual assault, recalled how she had told the candidate and got her assurance that she would stand with victims.
"The person who assaulted me was on campus, and I had to be on campus, too," Beadleston said. "There are enormous amounts of women who find themselves in that position and simply leave school. And when I asked Hillary about it, she answered very well. It's a big issue to me."
Dunham, who did not specificially address the Broaddrick or other Bill Clinton accusations, has nonetheless argued that any attack on Bill Clinton's behavior was a cynical way to get at his wife. "I think that women should not be forced to constantly answer for the rhetoric around their husband's lives," Dunham told People magazine over the weekend.
At her final stop, in Des Moines, Dunham's audience echoed that sentiment.
"Why use what her husband did against her? She wasn't going out doing those things against her husband. Her husband did these things to her," said Aileen Hunnell, 36, a mother of two. "Trying to work through a marriage is hard without having the public eye in your relationship. I couldn't imagine. I think it's wrong. They need to leave her alone about it, to be honest with you. I went through a divorce. My husband cheated on me — so are you going to criticize me because my husband cheated but it was my fault?"
"I have a lot of respect for Bill Clinton, despite his poor choices that happened in the past," said Amy Cain, 39.
"It seems unfair because none of it was her doing," mother Carol Geigley, 67, chimed in.