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Alison Owings Headshot

The Hillary Holdouts ... And A Theory Why

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Enough, already. It is time to deconstruct the disaffected.

As the Obama campaign continues to court Hillary Holdouts, not to mention Her and Him, and as her supporters continue to express resignation, anger, pique, sadness, whatever, one element seems oddly lacking in the public discussion about why the Hillary women are disinclined to embrace the Obama man.

It is not (or not only) that some Hillary Holdouts are so used to the double Clinton embrace and attendant power vortex, they were and are unprepared to be, well, losers.

It is not (or, not only) racism.

It is not (or, not only) the often quoted instances of sexism in media commentary about Hillary.

It is not (or, not only) incalculable personal preference.

It is something that all older women -- let's say, women over 50, maybe younger -- carry in their memory banks. That is the legacy of sexism. (A disclaimer: I have written before in these virtual pages that my candidate of choice was, and is, Barack Obama. But as we say, this is not about me.)

Every one of us women over 50 (WO5?) has endured decades of sexism, ranging from annoying to terrifying -- unless we were, say, camping alone the whole time. We perhaps have forgotten certain instances, but not the residual feeling from them and not the sense of the daily -- yes, daily -- challenges. Do I fight this battle, or this one, or this one? What do I put up with? What do I not put up with? What am I even aware of putting up with? Sometimes the sexism was so all enveloping the dailyness of it disappeared. I have at least two (bright, talented, creative) women friends whose families thought college was for their one son, not their one daughter, and so the daughters became excellent -- and underemployed -- secretaries. (Did any office job interview not include the three little words, "Can you type?") I imagine many secretaries (no Personal Assistants they) sensed that they, not their male boss, should be running the office, the division, the company, the warehouse, the factory, the school, the organization, or yes, the country.

We come to the present campaign.

I am convinced that many women in their 60's and up remember their workplaces with a measure of rue, and other strands of their lives with mixed feelings. Granted, I have not suffered the worst of sexism -- OK, been goosed, groped (by a cab driver as I exited his cab), twice sexually attacked (and twice escaped), mocked, put down, stymied at work, denied entrance, and entrance, and entrance. These only relate to occasions I remember specifically, quite apart from prevailing assumptions that kept me from venturing farther than I did.

Two teensy incidents. I still recall buying (in high school) a book about the foreign service, which I yearned to join, until reading the best job for a woman would be arranging a successful embassy cocktail party for her husband, "to calm international nerves," if I remember the quote correctly. I still recall walking, trembling, into a New York City police station, ca. 1978, to report another attack (my scream from I don't know where scared the guy off me), and stammering that I didn't know if he had been trying, well, to rob or ... when the policeman at the desk sneered, "Maybe he was in love with you."

Two teensy incidents, out of zillions across the country.

Whether or not other women, blue collar or white, bothered or risked fuming then, they are fuming now.

"I couldn't even wear pants to work!" "I couldn't get a credit card!" said (in similar words) Hillary supporters recently. And on and on and on. It does not help to say I couldn't wear pants either, at ABC News in Washington, DC. It does not help to say my foreign service career never got started, a cop was rude to me, or if one more man called me "hon" or "dear" I was going to scream.

It certainly does not help to say, "Excuse me, are you perhaps being petty in deciding how to choose a presidential candidate?" (Did Sen. Obama deny you your credit card?)

It does not help because, IMHO, Hillary Clinton's older women supporters do not see in her a person of great privilege (and mistakes and flaws), but a psychological stand-in for themselves: a woman who is not young, who is not svelte, who is not stupid, just as they were not stupid. They see a woman who suffered because of a man. (Surely Hillary Clinton is the most publicly cuckolded woman since Debbie Reynolds lost Eddie Fisher to Elizabeth Taylor, and that is going back a ways.) Most of all, they see a woman who worked real hard and did not get promoted. Because of men. Especially one man.

So the soul-robbing sexism of the past (surely much of it no longer exists?) has come back to roost in the present. The Hillary Holdouts who could not wear pants to work then, yell their support for their pantsuit-wearing avenger now. She is not calling them off, either, is she? For one (seemingly benign) example, addressing a crowd of supporters in San Francisco in late July, she said it is "time for us to unite and stand together," but noted she was "proud to get more votes than anyone has gotten" in a U.S. presidential primary campaign.

Run that one by the Obama campaign.

It, meanwhile, might well pay less attention to Hillary and more to understanding, and publicly excoriating, the wrongs -- however petty they may seem to those who were not thus wronged -- that have so many of her supporters (to coin a phrase) fired up and ready to go ... elsewhere.