“THERE is nothing more sexist than wanting Hillary Clinton as president because she’s a woman.”
That is the attack I faced, in December, from women on a cruise organized by The Nation, the stalwart liberal magazine. The ship was steady enough, but I was rocked by the vitriol. A Nation editor estimated that 70 percent of cruise participants were Bernie Sanders supporters, and about 30 percent of those thought of Hillary Clinton as evil incarnate.
I was there to speak about Clinton’s political career, but suddenly found myself fighting paranoia that I was being shunned as a traitor to the progressive cause. I observed that most of the 200 or so women onboard were feminist boomers, ages 52 to 70-plus. Many had shared Hillary Rodham’s long history as a woman fighting for gender equality, capped with her declaration in Beijing in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights.”
Clinton, 68, has always counted on women of her generation as her rock-solid base. Polls don’t quantify doubts, but anecdotally, enthusiasm for her is anemic. Ambivalence is seeping in about her authenticity and the power of her symbolism as a woman. Once again, she has been caught coasting on inevitability by a grass-roots idealist with a universal health care plan. And there’s a sense that those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, from 2008, were historic enough.
Kathryn Levy, a poet and arts educator of Clinton’s vintage, said: “Between Hillary coming so close to winning the nomination in ’08, and an African-American man winning the election, that narrow mold of who could be president has already been broken.”
Over the past several months, I have had some 50 conversations with Democratic women of boomer age. A female editor at a prestigious national magazine confided: “I should be jumping up and down with enthusiasm for Hillary’s candidacy, but I’m not.” I asked if she would vote for Hillary in the end. “I am waiting to see if Bernie wins Iowa,” she whispered. “If so, I’m right there!”
“We’re worried that Hillary is not true to herself,” admitted the founder of an influential political forum in New York, also begging anonymity. “A lot of women vote from a compassionate, nurturing place, and those are not qualities you feel from her.”
In the 2008 presidential election, many boomer women, especially self-described “born feminists” like Lorraine Dusky, a writer and activist based on Long Island, started out as monotheistic Hillary worshipers. When a young, passionate African-American senator stole her thunder, “most of the Democratic women I knew turned to Obama,” recalls Dusky. “If you dared to say you were for Hillary, they’d lash out, ‘You’re crazy!’ ” The venom took a toll. This time, Dusky, having passed 70, said: “I’m feeling Clinton fatigue. Even exhaustion.”
The Rev. Katrina Foster, a Lutheran pastor for 21 years, told me, “I’m no longer interested in the physical packaging of these candidates.” Pastor Foster, who is gay, acknowledged that Clinton finally had the right position on gay issues. “But we now have won rights, I’m more concerned with what we have lost — what it means to be an American.” She is leaning toward supporting Bernie Sanders.
Slipping in the polls
By mid-January, polls were showing this erosion among voters for Clinton. Her once-dominant lead over Sanders had almost vanished in Iowa. The momentum of his socialist political revolution, fueled by donations that average of under $30, kept mounting.
Clinton’s pollster, Joel Benenson, was adamant that nothing had changed among Clinton’s base. “Her women peers are still her strongest supporters and why she’s leading in every single state polled, by significant margins.” The campaign knows it needs these peers, of course: Women vote in greater numbers than men, and older people have higher voting rates than younger voters.
But based on the campaign’s own polling and canvassing, the caucus votes of many women in Iowa are still up for grabs.
I called one of the independent voters whom the Clinton camp covets. A clinical psychologist in Northern California, Dr. Jennifer Gans, actually moaned: “I am so conflicted. I think she’s incredibly smart, and nobody has more experience. As a female, I feel proud and validated by her candidacy. It’s really uncomfortable to want so much to like her, and to cringe when I’m forced to think about the things I don’t like.”
Among those unlikables consistently repeated to me by women who are conflicted about her: not authentic; can’t trust her; she lies; she’s establishment; she’s a hawk. But then they’ll turn around and sigh, “It would be great to have a woman president, though.”
It’s been a long time since that devastating moment in June 2008 when Clinton finally internalized the shock of defeat in her first presidential contest. She had run like a man, proving her commander in chief credentials. “But I am a woman, and like millions of women I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious,” she declared proudly. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” Women in tears broke into deafening applause.
Now Hillary Clinton, the 2016 candidate, has to find the passion — not just the policies — to counter the exhilaration of revolutionary change that fires up Sanders’s supporters and to discredit the populist paranoia that stirs hatred among Donald J. Trump’s left-behind, working-class whites.
“Where is the enthusiasm for Hillary? It’s a fair question,” admits Lynn Forester de Rothschild, 61, a loyal donor and fund-raiser for Clinton. When Obama won the nomination in 2008, de Rothschild resigned in fury from the Democratic platform committee and marched out of the convention leading a group called PUMA — “party unity my ass’” — to vote for John McCain.
“Shame on us — Democrats and particularly friends of Hillary — because we allowed Republicans and the media to paint a caricature of Hillary for far too long,” de Rothschild told me.
Clinton is painting her own portrait this time — leaning in to her gender, especially as an argument against the charge that she is a Washington insider.
“Who can be more of an outsider than a woman president?” she has said.
This gender-focused approach seemed to be working well for Mrs. Clinton last July, when 71 percent of Democratic-leaning women voters said they expected to vote for her, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. By September, Democrats were wringing their hands over her email scandal, and her support from the same women had dropped almost 30 percentage points.
‘Stonewalling’ a Clinton trait
That much-hyped controversy reminded many of us of Hillary Clinton’s most consistent character flaw: the instinct to stonewall whenever she is confronted with a negative, but legitimate, criticism of her actions.
When de Rothschild talked to Clinton last fall about her eroding support, she found the candidate unfazed: “She told me, ‘Don’t worry, in October I have an opportunity to do debates, and after that the Benghazi hearings, the first time Americans can truly see me.’ ”
Clinton’s prediction came true. Her composure through 11 hours of Republican jackhammering was a tutorial in how to handle powerful men who oppose a woman of power and feel free to denigrate and intimidate her.
After the Benghazi inquisition, a national coalition of several hundred executive women who advocate for Clinton saw a sudden leap of 10 percent in membership, according to the group’s co-founder, the former politician Sherrye Henry.
Many fiercely loyal Hillary-ists appreciate her lifelong commitment to empowering women and girls. As secretary of state, she worked that issue into the portfolio of future secretaries. A gynecologist who is exactly Mrs. Clinton’s age represents legions of women adamant about saving reproductive freedom: “I’m not voting for any politician who has inordinate interest in what goes on in my vagina.”
WHEN I began writing about the Clintons in the earliest days of their first national campaign in 1992 as a “two for the price of one” president, I asked the cocky young governor of Arkansas about their long-term goal. Bill Clinton sang out the private slogan of their eternal campaign:
“Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill.”
I used to hear from professional boomer women endless predictions of when Hillary Clinton would leave her cheating husband — after they exited the White House, once she won her Senate election, certainly once she bought her own home in Washington. I always said she would never leave him; they are symbiotic, and besides, they love each other.
For many women who have lived through similar betrayals in life, another narrative has taken hold in recent years: Hillary Clinton is the model of an indomitable woman. She deflects shaming and swallows humiliation and keeps her eye on her purpose in life. She is a deeply committed mother and partner to one of the most gifted political leaders of our time. It took a Hillary to raise a president, to keep their family together, and to allow them to continue contributing to this country and the world.
In early 1992, I watched her develop a political strategy that for years deflected her own anger at Bill Clinton’s women. I was standing next to Clinton in a motel lobby when the TV flashed an image of Gennifer Flowers, a lounge singer with slot-machine eyes. She was playing phone tapes of steamy sex talk with Governor Clinton for the press. I stared at Hillary Clinton’s profile. No surprise. Quick blink. She dispatched a press secretary to “get our surrogates on the line.” Sitting knee to knee with her on the tiny plane out of South Dakota, I heard her swear that if she had Flowers on the stand, “I would crucify her.” That’s when she laid down the strategy the Clintons used until recently: “Pound the Republican attack machine and run against the press.”
Now, the Clintons’ union is again campaign fodder. Trump is branding Clinton as the “enabler” who defended Bill Clinton from a decade of attacks as what Mr. Trump calls “one of the great abusers of the world.”
This strategy, on Trump’s part, digs up memories of the tawdry tabloid years and the so-called “bimbo eruptions” that Clinton’s contemporaries, especially women, would rather not recall. Millennial women will most likely be learning for the first time not just how Bill Clinton’s presidency brought the country a budget surplus, but why he was impeached and what his wife did to save him.
Her strategy for coping then was an instructive one.
In 1999, when I published a biography of this globally admired woman, “Hillary’s Choice,” I viewed the Clinton presidency through the lens of the Clinton marriage. The saga of Bill and Hillary, with its echoes of Eleanor and Franklin and undertones of Bonnie and Clyde, was animated by melodrama, narrow escapes, knock-down-drag-outs. They seemed to thrive on it.
Today, Clinton’s defenders insist that she is willing to learn, grow and change. Trudy Mason, vice chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Committee, points to Clinton’s total loyalty to Obama after losing her fierce campaign against him. “If I had to define Hillary in a word, she’s a mensch,” says Mason, “a real down-to-earth, nitty-gritty person.”
But even Ms. Mason admits that she hears a sense of ambivalence among some of Mrs. Clinton’s most enduring supporters: senior African-American women. When Ruth Hassell-Thompson campaigned for the New York State Senate, together with Clinton in 2000, the newly liberated first lady got to know Thompson’s family. Now, Thompson’s 10-year-old grandson is shocked when he asks Granny whom she’s going to vote for.
It’s the first time she hasn’t knocked herself out for Hillary Clinton. “It makes me very angry that I and other women of color sacrificed a lot to stay with Hillary in 2008 when she ran against the first black president. I feel disregarded — never had a call, no outreach at all. It will be her loss.”
Clinton’s latest gain appears to be among moderate Republican women who are revolted by the extremism of Trump. The prominent director of a major museum in New York described herself to me as a “loyal to the core Republican” who has run arts programs for three presidents — the two Bushes and Obama. In December, she fired off an email to a dozen prominent Republican women friends declaring her defection from “what is left of the Republican Party. I just signed up for the Hillary campaign and made my first donation.” The other women approved.
Days before Iowans were to go to the polls, I called de Rothschild, who is volunteering for the campaign in South Carolina, for a look ahead. She laughed off any concern. “Boomer women in South Carolina, especially African Americans, are unequivocally committed to Hillary, no matter what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire,” she said.
Recently, I asked a senior campaign official if Mrs. Clinton was hatching any new strategy to stop Sanders. He said, “She’s going to keep on grinding it out.”
After all these years of watching Hillary Clinton’s star as it rises, falls, but always rises again, I would love to be a true believer.
I’m feeling ambivalent.
Gail Sheehy is the author of “Hillary’s Choice” and, most recently, the memoir “Daring: My Passages.” This piece first appeared in the New York Times.