Politics & Government

Some women don't care that Clinton would be first female president

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, at the Apollo Theatre in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, March 30, 2016, at the Apollo Theatre in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) AP

WASHINGTON -- In 2008, when Hillary Clinton first ran for president, she avoided talking about gender, repeatedly saying that she was running because she was the best-qualified candidate.

Eight years later, Clinton has embraced her place in history, focusing on issues that could appeal to women, including equal pay, affordable child care and paid family leave.

Her strategy, however, isn't getting the expected response from women.

Female voters who once spoke excitedly about the possibility of electing the first female president are going out of their way not to talk about it this year, even though the prospects are better.

Dozens of female Democratic voters in several states, including those who support Clinton, say they aren't considering gender at all when deciding whom to support this year, even though they'd like to see a woman elected president someday. For some of them, it doesn't have to be this woman, this year.

"It's got to be the right woman," said Jan McGuire, 49, a high school English teacher from Council Bluffs, Iowa. McGuire, who supports Clinton, was far less excited about past vice-presidential candidates Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Geraldine Ferraro.

Following a string of female Supreme Court justices, female Cabinet secretaries and the first female speaker of the House of Representatives, the prospect of electing a female president doesn't seem as far out of reach as it once did. Clinton, the first woman to seriously compete for the presidency, was joined on the campaign trail this time by Republican Carly Fiorina, who dropped out last month.

"I want to see a woman as much as anyone," said Liliana Daly, a junior at the University of New Hampshire who backs Clinton's rival, a 74-year-old man, Bernie Sanders. But, she said, "I shouldn't automatically want to vote for a woman."

In 1937, the first time Gallup polled about electing a woman to the White House, only 1 in 3 said they would support a female candidate. These days, 95 percent say they would back a well-qualified woman to lead the country.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said female voters might be a bit "defensive" about backing Clinton because of her gender. Some don't want to admit it's about that.

"It's a sign of the times," said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina legislator who's a member of the Democratic National Committee. "We've gotten to the point where it's not politically correct to say that."

Winning women's votes is crucial because more of them vote than men. They've favored Democratic presidential candidates since 1980, but front-running Republican nominee Donald Trump has won female voters in many primary contests and could appeal to them in a general election by focusing on some of his seemingly more moderate stances on health care and Planned Parenthood.

Clinton has won the female vote in many states, helping her amass a nearly insurmountable lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. But in New Hampshire, she lost women, 55 percent to 44 percent, and in other states, including Oklahoma and Michigan, she came close to losing them as frustrated young women flocked to Sanders.

A flurry of women-focused organizations, including Emily's List, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Votes, have made phone calls, knocked on doors, sent mailers and launched ad campaigns, all for Clinton.

Still, to some women, Clinton's wealth, fame and race make her part of the "establishment" politics they are fighting against.

"Nothing she says seems authentic to me," said Becca Ites, 30, a high school coach in Des Moines, Iowa. "I honestly don't believe her. Just because she's a female doesn't mean that she identifies with anything."

Clinton scoffed when Sanders called her an establishment politician at a debate last month.

"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," she said. "And I've got to tell you that it is ... really quite amusing to me."

It's all part of Clinton's strategy to try to be a feminist role model, talking about how she stood up to the old boys club in the legal world and pushed back against political attacks. She has even proudly recognized her choice of fashion, her trademark pantsuit, and released a playlist of songs, mostly sung by young female artists focused on resilience.

But some female voters this year are too young to remember what she has accomplished. As a young lawyer, she wrote about children's rights. As first lady, she wrote a book, "It Takes a Village," about raising children. As secretary of state, she championed proposals to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.

There is a generational split when it comes to Clinton.

Younger woman are certain they will see a female president in their lifetime, whether it's Clinton this year or someone else later. Older women are not as sure.

"Women need to be running things. The men don't do anything right," said Myrtle Paul, 87, a retiree from Kingstree, S.C. "We have to elect ourselves."

It's that idea that led Madeleine Albright, the nation's first female secretary of state and a Clinton supporter, to say "there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other."

Feminist writer and editor Gloria Steinem, another older Clinton supporter, was criticized after she said young women backed Sanders because they wanted to get closer to the young men who supported him. "They're going to get more activist as they get older," Steinem said. "And when you're young, you're thinking 'Where are the boys?' The boys are with Bernie."

Emily Rice, a student at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, praised Clinton for being the first to proclaim women's rights as human rights and human rights as women's rights in a speech she gave 20 years ago in Beijing. But Rice is quick to say she understands the reasons that some might not support someone like Clinton this year.

"People my age are very angry, and don't see a path forward," she said.

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(Lesley Clark, William Douglas, David Lightman and Maria Recio contributed to this report.)

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