CONCORD, N.H. — One of Arnie Arnesen’s cherished possessions is a photo of feminist icon Gloria Steinem standing on a chair and speaking on her behalf at a fundraiser back when Arnesen was New Hampshire’s Democratic nominee for governor.
It was 1992 — now remembered as the “Year of the Woman” because so many were breaking down barriers and running for office. Arnesen was part of that vanguard.
These days, she is furious with her idol and has a deep concern about the tone that the presidential race has taken on, even as the prospect of a woman in the Oval Office seems nearer than ever.
And she blames Hillary Clinton.
“I’m crushed by this,” said Arnesen, who hosts a talk radio show and has not endorsed a candidate in her state’s Democratic primary. “In some ways, Hillary is bringing the worst out of the women I admire, and Gloria Steinem is one of them.”
Former secretary of state Clinton and her allies are making increasingly overt — and clumsy — appeals to feminist solidarity as she struggles with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in her battle for the Democratic nomination. The reactions of Arnesen and others suggest that it could be backfiring, at least in New Hampshire, a state proud of its tradition of electing women.
“Not everybody views voting as a statement of their identities,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. Younger women in particular, she said, have “a desire for a transformative figure, and [Clinton] doesn’t embody that.”
That applies to many women who are not so young. Some have mixed feelings, having watched Clinton for the quarter-century that she has been on the national stage. Recent controversies, including one over her use of private email when she was secretary of state, have revived their misgivings about her ethics and management style.
“Hillary Clinton fatigue — that’s part of what I’m feeling,” said Elise deMichael, 67, a Democratic activist from Milford, N.H. “I know she’s smart, and I know she works hard, and I know she’s dedicated, but she’s had to give up little bits of honesty all along the way.”
DeMichael is supporting Sanders in the primary, but she added that if Clinton “gets the nomination, you bet I’ll support her.”
The gender question was inflamed over the weekend when Steinem and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, both supporters of Clinton, made statements upbraiding women who are not.
At a rally in New Hampshire, Albright delivered a line she has often used in the past, but one that was jarring in the context of a hard-fought party primary: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
Separately, in an appearance on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Steinem speculated that younger women are supporting Sanders because “when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.” Steinem has since apologized.
Bill Clinton continued the pile-on in an appearance Sunday night in Milford when he noted that some of Sanders’s supporters have behaved boorishly toward his wife in comments on the Internet.
“People who have gone online to defend Hillary, to explain why they supported her, have been subject to vicious trolling and attacks that are literally too profane often, not to mention sexist, to repeat,” the former president said.
Sanders has denounced and distanced himself from the online misogyny of a group who have come to be known as “Bernie bros.” And he has from the outset of his campaign expressed a recognition of the sensitivities that surround his effort to derail the candidacy of someone who could be the nation’s first female chief executive.
“I do understand there is a desire on the part of many women, perfectly understandable, to see a woman being elected president. And we all want to see that. We want to see women hold more political offices,” Sanders said in an interview with The Washington Post in September.
“But I also would hope that, in these enormously difficult times, where it is absolutely imperative that we stand up to the billionaire class, bring our people together, to fight for a progressive agenda, that all people — women — look at that candidate who has the record to do that,” he said.
Unlike in Iowa, where Clinton won among women by 11 percentage points, she is struggling for their votes here. A new CNN/WMUR survey showed Sanders beating her among women by eight points.
One explanation of that disparity may be found in the contrasting histories of the two states. Until the election of Republican Sen. Joni Ernst last November, Iowa and Mississippi were the only states in the country that had never elected a female governor or sent a woman to Congress.
New Hampshire, on the other hand, has a strong tradition of electing women. In 2013, it become the first state in the nation to send an all-female delegation to Capitol Hill; back at home, the governor, house speaker and chief justice of the Supreme Court were all women.
So it may be that having a female president does not seem like such a reach.
“We’ve elected the good, the bad, the ugly of women,” Arnesen said. “We’ve seen them in every level of leadership. We’ve seen some produce and some disappoint.”
She added: “The presidency is the gold ring. I get it. The most important thing is it’s got to be the right person.”
Greenberg said that her polling suggests Clinton will do better as the presidential contest moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, which are small and relatively homogeneous.
Nevada and South Carolina, the next two contests, will be the first states with sizable Hispanic and African American electorates, respectively.
An analysis of Washington Post/ABC News polls over the past couple of months gives a broad sense of how the dynamic could shift.
Clinton led Sanders 70 percent to 21 percent among African American, Hispanic and other non-white women who were likely to vote for a Democrat, according to combined polls in January and February. She enjoyed a large but significantly smaller margin — 52 percent to 36 percent — among white women.