04/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Superdelegates: Weighing Gender Against Momentum

Lynne Glasner, Gina Hardin, Karen Sellars, Annie Shreffler and Ellen Emerson White researched the superdelegates mentioned in this article. Editorial assistance: RedDeer.

In November 1965, Jackie Stevenson of Minnesota was a single mother, caring for two small children. Although employed, she couldn't get a bank to give her a home loan. "I was not allowed [a mortgage] because I was a single mother," she says.

Stevenson was regularly denied charge accounts for the same reason, even at a department store where she worked. In 1973, when Minnesota organized its Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's Feminist Caucus, Stevenson was ready to join. "I was ripe for such a thing."

Now, more than 40 years later, Stevenson still plays a vital role in the caucus, the only one of its kind in the nation. She's also actively involved in the state party, a DNC member and superdelegate who supports Sen. Clinton.

In an election year where every delegate counts, female superdelegates may play the role of king-maker (or queen-maker). Since February 5th's Super Tuesday primaries, Obama has gained 55 superdelegates while Clinton has lost 5; this has narrowed the gap between them to less than 30. Despite Obama's gains, a strong feminist tide continues to run in Clinton's favor. Declared female superdelegates support Sen. Clinton over Sen. Obama by significant margins, and female superdelegates are endorsing at a faster rate than their male counterparts, according to OffTheBus's Superdelegate Investigation.

Many female superdelegates like Jackie Stevenson who have endorsed Clinton appear to have done so on the basis of generational and personal ties and because they self-identify as feminists.

Drawing from hundreds of superdelegate profiles compiled from interviews and material available online, OffTheBus researchers found that, of the 278 female superdelegates, approximately 116 have declared support for Clinton while 70 have pledged support for Obama. In addition, whereas 67 percent of female superdelegates have already committed to one of the two candidates, only 53 percent of male superdelegates have done so.

Female superdelegates who support Clinton feel they are backing a strong and experienced candidate. In most cases, feminism plays a key role in how they judge political issues more generally.

"When I first took my petition [to hold legislative office] around to get signed," said Pennsylvania superdelegate Ruth Rudy in an interview with the Associated Press, "there were people who said, 'I just don't think a woman is capable of handling the job.'"

Despite these hurdles, Rudy won a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1983, where she served for 13 years. During this time, she also served two years as the President of the National Federation of Democratic Women.

Rudy's casting her superdelegate vote for Clinton. "I'm supporting a women's group... It's the women of America who are putting votes up for Hillary," Rudy explained to the Centre Daily Times.

Quite a few of the female superdelegates interviewed by OffTheBus feel that Clinton is being judged too harshly due to her ties to Bill. They dismiss claims that she's riding his presidential coattails. (For a separate OffTheBus article examining this theory, click here.)

Stevenson is quick to point out the double standards facing women in American politics.

"Hillary Rodham could have done a lot of this herself." Stevenson feels Clinton definitely could have become a senator without the help of her former-president husband. Stevenson mused that Clinton could have even become senator of Illinois, had she stayed in the state of her birth.

Faced with everything Clinton's been through, Stevenson feels most of us would give up. She admires the Senator for her perseverance through the 1990s insurance battles and the scandals surrounding her marriage.

"It's like tearing a person up into little pieces and putting them in envelopes and sending them everywhere," Stevenson said.

In explaining her support of Clinton, Stevenson points to noted feminist Robin Morgan's updated essay "Goodbye To All That," originally published in the 1970s discussing the politics of accommodation and sexism. The ending sums it up best: "...I'm voting for Hillary not because she's a woman-- but because I am."

Early in February, when MSNBC correspondent David Shuster suggested Chelsea Clinton was "being pimped in some weird sort of way" by the campaign, superdelegate Judith Hope of New York was quick to respond:

"You know, no matter who your favorite candidate for president may be, can American women continue to look the other way while the national media spews such sexist contempt?

"If we learn nothing else from this long Democratic primary season, we now know this: It is still 'open season' on American women," wrote Hope in an email to Eleanor's Legacy supporters.

Judith Hope enthused her support for Sen. Clinton's candidacy over a year ago, just as it was made official. "I think it's an exciting moment in history for New York women, for American women and, in fact, for women around the world," she told USA Today in January 2007.

Female superdelegates who support Obama are just as quick to describe themselves as feminist. They don't see a vote for Obama as being at odds with feminism. Instead, they see Obama's voting record-- pro-choice, pro-woman, and pro-family-- and ability to build an impressive grassroots and fundraising machine as compelling and rational arguments to cast their votes with him.

Judy Bevans of Vermont, originally an Edwards supporter, was impressed by the amount of young people Obama attracted, and his grassroots organization.

"He speaks to the future, not that Hillary says anything about the past. That spoke directly to me," explained Bevans.

She also, like many of the female superdelegates supporting Sen. Clinton, identify with the historical obstacles facing women. Bevans points to the pressures of working in a traditionally male-dominated field.

"Years ago, I was the first woman fire-fighter in Westchester County, New York." Initially Bevans didn't give interviews or speak to the press about her unique position.

"I thought that if I gave interviews, I wouldn't be considered serious by the others," said Evans.

Not all Obama supporters came to their choice as easily. Mary Long was working at the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1960s. In a 1999 interview with Georgia Women's Movement Oral History Project, Long explains "I would see women come in with such damage to their bodies based on all of the back road, back woods, back alley abortions, and how they tried to do self-induced abortions, and whatever."

One night, a young woman came to the hospital, nine-weeks pregnant and recently abandoned by her husband, hoping to terminate her pregnancy. This woman became Mary Doe in the Georgia case Doe v. Bolton, a companion case to Roe v. Wade. Long became one of the nine plaintiffs on the case, bringing federal action in Northern District of Georgia.

"...As a nurse, I just really felt that it was much better for women to have safe abortions. And it would be a woman's choice. I don't think anybody is out here yelling, 'Abortion! Abortion!' What we're saying is that it's a woman's choice, and I don't want to make that choice for anybody," Long explained to Janet Paulk during the interview.

Since then, Long's been involved in numerous health-based initiatives, programs and coalitions, and was involved with Georgia State University's Women Collection for many years.

Mary Long thought long and hard before announcing her support. In coming to her decision, she thought about balancing the need for a woman candidate with how her constituents voted: Georgia voted overwhelmingly for Obama-- he won the primary with 67 percent of the vote. She was elected to the DNC in 2007.

"It's not a personal decision, it's a decision about representing Georgians. I'm still a feminist, no matter what," Long explained. "This is not falling off the wagon at all; sometimes you have to make a rational decision."

Female superdelegate supporters of Sen. Clinton disagree. For Stevenson, it's now or never. Stevenson, who's in her early 70s, doesn't feel there will be another woman candidate in her lifetime. "If there is, I'm not sure who [it would be]."

In a state where Obama won handily with 66 percent of the vote, Stevenson faces pressure to change her endorsement. She feels criminalized by her support of Clinton, but refuses to back down. In fact, Stevenson empathizes with Geraldine Ferraro and the recent fire she's come under.

"How dare they criticize her for saying what most people in this country are thinking... If Obama was a white male..." Stevenson trailed off, not completing the thought.

Along those lines, she remarks, "I see and hear an anger [in the Democratic Party] that I've not been aware of in all my years of involvement."

Others see that anger, too, and are hoping to avoid an August convention meltdown. There are 92 female superdelegates that have not yet endorsed a candidate. Many of them, including both Christine and Nancy Pelosi, are committing their votes to the leader in pledged delegates.

"Many of us are elected by the grassroots of the party," explained Christine Pelosi, in a February interview with the Huffington Post. "And I cannot imagine going home in November to those people and trying to phone bank for someone who did not capture the [pledged delegate] vote..."

Betty Richards, an unpledged superdelegate of Texas, agrees, and doesn't think the decision of the nominee should be left up to the superdelegates. On CNN's American Morning, she stated that she "really [has] a problem with superdelegates making the decision....I just don't think that that's the way it should be."

Committed superdelegates for both Clinton and Obama have reserved the right to change their votes based on the pledged delegate numbers, including Clinton supporter Sen. Maria Cantwell and Obama supporter Rep. Zoe Lofgren. Although the superdelegates have the right to endorse whomever they choose, party unity in November is becoming a bigger priority than personal preference.