Amy Klobuchar was a swing voter this year. At the outset of the 2008 race, the 48-year-old Senator from Minnesota was exactly the kind of voter Hillary Clinton's campaign was counting on. Women a generation older would be safely in their camp. Younger women would be susceptible to Obamamania. Clinton's team thought that those in Klobuchar's demographic--professional, well-educated women who came of age during the modern women's movement--would be moved by the very real opportunity to put one of their own in the White House.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. While Klobuchar's 80-year-old mother is an ardent Clinton supporter and her adolescent daughter is "all about Barack," the Senator voted for Obama. "He has transcended traditional politics," she says.
One of the Democratic campaign's great misperceptions has been that Clinton held an overwhelming advantage among women voters. But that isn't the case. As expected, Clinton captured the over-65 vote, and Obama won over younger women. But women in the middle split almost evenly between the two. And while both Senators boasted historic candidacies, Obama's seemed to resonate more deeply, translating into 70%, 80% and even 90% of the black vote in primary contests. No one expected Clinton to sweep 90% of Democratic women voters, but 60% wouldn't have been an unreasonable accomplishment for the first woman to have a serious chance of winning the presidency. Instead, Clinton won just over a majority of women's votes.
So what does that mean? Clinton and her supporters have charged that sexism is responsible for her loss of the nomination. But it seems more likely that women themselves cost her the nod. The reasons more women haven't voted for Clinton tell us something about the evolution of feminism and what the future may hold for female politicians.
Clinton's run has exposed a divide between what could be termed optimist and pessimist feminists. It's a split between those who see Clinton's candidacy as groundbreaking--as the first of many serious runs by strong women--and those who count backward to Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and conclude that this kind of opportunity comes along only once in a generation. For this latter group, Clinton's candidacy took on a pressing urgency: If not now, when? If not her, who?
What unites the pessimists--many of whom are older women or women who don't work outside the home--is the persistent belief that women continue to face sexism and barriers in the workplace. Some may have an outmoded sense of the obstacles women face on the job, while others may well have left a workplace that made it hard for them to maintain a work-life balance. In both cases, they're more likely to place value in the symbolic power of electing a woman President.
Optimist feminists, on the other hand, don't question that a woman can become President or that it will occur in their lifetime. When these women look around, they see themselves making up half of business- and medical-school classes. They are law partners, CEOs and university presidents. And they don't want to rally behind a female candidate simply because she is a woman.
Women often tell me it's important to get more of them elected so they can change the tenor of politics. But that goal has faced some tough choices in the Democratic contest. "He's the girl in the race," explains Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project, a nonprofit that helps women move into positions of leadership. "Clinton came out tough; she voted for the war. Obama came out as the person bringing people together and offering messages of hope and reconciliation."
Although Klobuchar approvingly cites Obama's practice of feminine politics ("He uses things like the Jeremiah Wright controversy as teachable moments"), she knows as well as anyone that female politicians still face some skepticism. Three months into her Senate tenure, Klobuchar was in an elevator with some aides when a gop colleague entered and gently chided them for taking the Senators-only elevator.
Yet Klobuchar doesn't feel she has to prove she belongs. And thanks to Clinton, neither will the next women who run for President. Clinton has shattered long-standing assumptions about whether a woman could seriously compete for the White House. She not only avoided the label of "novelty candidate," but embraced that of "inevitable nominee." She mopped the floor with her opponents in debates. "This will only help women candidates," says Klobuchar. In that sense, the biggest legacy of Clinton's run may prove to be some sisterly competition the next time around.