In a devastating outcome for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, this was the most unkindest cut of all: Women flocked to Bernie Sanders. Not by single digits, but by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent.
These numbers matter, and not, as Shakespeare wrote of Brutus stabbing Caesar, because “ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms, quite vanquish’d him.” Clinton is not vanquished by what she and her supporters may see as female voters’ ingratitude; she will soldier on.
But moving forward, the candidate and her campaign need to figure out how better to speak to women, especially younger ones and those who are unmarried. In particular, they need to navigate the treacherous waters of celebrating the prospect of the first female president without sounding as if that is a qualification in itself. Or, worse, as if female voters tempted by Sanders are traitors to the feminist cause — Brutus to Clinton’s Caesar.
Women are key to electoral success, especially for Democrats. Not so long ago, analysts could debate whether the country was ready to elect a female president. Not anymore. If Clinton loses the nomination or the general election, she won’t have been defeated because she’s a woman. She’ll have lost despite that electorally helpful fact.
Consider these numbers. Women accounted for 57 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, where they provided Clinton’s millimeter-thin margin of victory. They constituted 55 percent of Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire. Even though Clinton did not garner a majority of support among women, according to network exit polls, female voters significantly softened Sanders’s win. Men backed him by an astonishing 67 percent to 32 percent.
Women similarly make up the majority of general election voters — 53 percent in 2012. While Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the majority of male voters (54 percent to 46 percent for Barack Obama), women supported Obama (56 percent to 44 percent).
In short, in an unimaginable world in which women still lacked the right to vote — indeed, in a world in which women voted in fewer numbers — Clinton would stand no chance. “Her gender is still a very strong asset for this campaign,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
So what should she do? First, drop the argument, heavy-handed and unconvincing, that gender is Clinton’s anti-establishment calling card. “Honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” Clinton said at the most recent debate, and she’s made this point before.
Come on. The Clintons embody the Democratic establishment. Women know that. Instructing them differently just makes them feel as if they are being treated like fools by another typical politician.
Second, stop the insinuations, subtle and explicit, that Clinton is the victim of sexism. Yes, the “Bernie bros” have tweeted ugly things. Yes, women who raise their voices face criticism that is not leveled at shouting men. But the Clinton campaign has been too quick to suggest sexism — more accurately, to leave it to their supporters to make those suggestions — when confronted with what is simply tough politics as usual.
Third, cut the guilt-tripping. It won’t only fail to convince younger women — it’s going to insult their mothers as well. Madeleine Albright was understandably frustrated about complacent young women who fail to grasp the significance of electing the first female president, but the former secretary of state edged into offensive lecturing.
“So people are talking about revolution. What kind of a revolution would it be to have the first woman president of the United States?” Albright said. “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women [think] it’s been done. It’s not done. And you have to help.” Then, the controversial part, “And, just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
This is true in general, and great advice on a Starbucks cup. It’s offensive in the specific context of instructing young women about their electoral obligation. Clinton would have been better advised to acknowledge this point than to dismiss it.
“Well good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd, channeling her inner Trump. Not everything. Just suggestions that it’s a slap to the sisterhood to fail to support the female candidate.
Feminism doesn’t mean imposing a moral obligation on women to vote a certain way. It means trusting them, not demeaning them, when they choose the candidate they like best, male or female. Even if their mothers disagree.