On January 9th, Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, much to the surprise of political pundits who had spent the previous few days gloating over the demise of her presidential bid. While the junior Senator from New York attributed her victory to her performance in the January 5th debates, many observers thought it was due to two other factors: there was a huge turnout for the primary and female voters overwhelmingly preferred Ms. Clinton. Some suggested there had been a gender "backlash" as a result of her treatment by the media and the other (male) candidates.
Theoretically, Senator Clinton's gender should make no difference in the election. An October 6th Gallup Poll found 61 percent believed "Americans are ready to elect a woman president." Nonetheless, many who read the poll results wondered whether they represented the true feelings of respondents or were, instead, an expression of political correctness - an answer that reflected what the public thought the poll takers wanted to hear.
After Senator Clinton finished third in the January 3rd Iowa Democratic Caucuses, some pundits believed she was finished as a candidate. As the campaign focus moved to New Hampshire, the interchange among and about the candidates became increasingly acerbic. Polls indicated Senator Barack Obama had gained a substantial "bump" in popularity, as the result of his victory in Iowa, and many observers predicted he would win the New Hampshire primary, "run the table" in the other primaries, and secure the Democratic Presidential nomination.
One day before the New Hampshire primary, Ms. Clinton was videotaped in an emotional moment; when she was asked how she was holding up under the strain of the campaign, the Senator's eyes became misty. That night, this brief display of emotion became the lead news story for each of the major TV news outlets. Many political commentators interpreted it as a sign of weakness. When asked about her emotional moment, Presidential candidate John Edwards responded, "I think what we need in a commander in chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are a tough business, but being President of the United States is also a very tough business."
Media coverage of Senator Clinton's moment and the response of prominent males, such as John Edwards and Rush Limbaugh, infuriated women throughout the United States. All the women I talked to felt the media response was an example of blatant sexism and rose to Hillary's defense. Coincidentally, on January 9th, an Op-Ed by Gloria Steinem appeared in The New York Times. She observed, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy." Ms. Steinem concluded, "there is still no 'right' way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what."
Subsequent to her moist eyes moment, Senator Clinton was defended by a wide range of female political observers - including Rachel Maddow, Kathe Pollitt, and Katrina Vanden Heuvel - many of who were not historic supporters of the junior Senator from New York. They condemned the sexist attacks on Ms. Clinton.
There's no accurate way to gauge the impact these events had on the January 9th turnout. However, exit polls indicated 57 percent of those voting for the Democratic ballot were women. Ms. Clinton enjoyed a 46 to 34 percent advantage over Mr. Obama among women voters. Among single women, Senator Clinton enjoyed a 50 to 33 percent advantage over Senator Obama, whereas in Iowa he had won this segment of voters.
Joshua Holland analyzed the New Hampshire exits polls and concluded Hillary Clinton's victory was due primarily to the superior get-out-the-vote effort mounted by her supporters. He observed, "the women [who] did come out for Hillary... were women who, by and large, already supported Hillary and were motivated, likely by Hillary's show of emotion and the perception she was being ganged-up on by the men and the media, to get out to the polls."
Since she announced her candidacy, Senator Clinton has been subjected to relentless sexist attacks. The December 7th edition of Bill Moyer's Journal discussed "the misogyny that is present on the Internet... about Hillary Clinton." Moyer's showed a clip from a John McCain public meeting where a woman stood up and asked the Arizona Senator, "How do we beat the bitch?" McCain acted embarrassed but didn't indicate his disapproval of the comment - something he presumably would have done if the woman had remarked, "How do you we beat the nigger?"
The sexist attacks on Senator Clinton have had an ethical and pragmatic consequence. The ethical side has been to legitimize misogyny in the mainstream media. That's what we saw in the anti-Hillary attacks in the days before the New Hampshire primary; she was subjected to virulent personal assaults that came inches short of declaring, "we beat the bitch."
Women voters haven't ignored this sexism. The New Hampshire results indicate there was a gender backlash because of the attacks on Senator Clinton. The key fact in the primary was that 57 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primary were women. This reflects a trend in American politics: women continue to vote in greater numbers than do men. If Ms. Clinton can harness this movement, she'll likely win the Democratic Presidential nomination.