“Gender,” Gloria Steinem wrote in the New York Times, “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.”
Later that day, Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire made her the first woman to win a presidential primary.

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Is Clinton hampered by her gender as she fights for the Democratic nomination? I think the reality is neither as dire as Steinem suggests nor as benign as those of us who would like to see a woman elected president would wish.

Clinton herself has recently sounded like Steinem by way of Tammy Wynette: 1992’s invocation of “Stand by Your Man” has morphed into “Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Woman.”

As the candidate said last week, “It’s hard being a woman out there. It is obviously challenging with some of [the] things that are said, that are not even personal to me so much as they are about women.”

The burden of two X chromosomes, Clinton suggested, has made hers a tougher climb: “Now every so often I just wish that it were a little more of an even playing field, but, you know, I play on whatever field is out there.”

This complaint is a little hard to take from someone who entered the race as the Official Candidate of the Democratic Establishment. Clinton might not have been born on third base, to paraphrase the late Texas governor Ann Richards on George W. Bush, but she began the campaign with the equivalent of a triple.

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The candidate of inevitability and the victim of the uneven playing field aren’t compatible concepts.

If anything, the playing field has been demographically tilted in Clinton’s favor. Women account for nearly six in 10 Democratic primary voters. In October, when it seemed almost a given that Clinton would win the nomination, Clinton strategist Mark Penn bragged about her edge with women and predicted that 24 percent of Republican women could defect in the general election. I don’t recall any complaints about field conditions then.

Clinton’s loss, if it comes to that, will have more to do with squandered and mismanaged resources; a shapeless, shifting message; a loose-lipped spouse; and arrogant strategists who dismissed the threat from Barack Obama and assumed the past would predict the future.

Yet I’m not arguing that gender has been irrelevant in this campaign. How could it be with the first serious female candidate for the White House?

The gender gap in Clinton’s support is persistent — and striking. In every Post-ABC News poll since December, Clinton’s support among women has significantly exceeded her backing among men, with differences ranging from the mid- to high teens. In the latest poll, Clinton trailed Obama among men 35 to 57 percent, even as she clung to a narrow lead, 50 to 45 percent, among women.

Still, as Democratic pollster Geoff Garin notes, women have tended to stick with Clinton even as men have been swept away by Obama, suggesting that the difference may lie more in women’s affinity for Clinton and interest in a female candidate. “It does not appear to be the case that Democratic men are particularly hostile to her,” Garin said.

Clinton can legitimately complain about a double standard when it comes to sexism on the campaign trail. The exquisite sensitivity to perceived racial slights — Joe Biden on the “clean” and “articulate” Obama — has been missing on gender. “How do we beat the bitch?” one voter — an elegantly dressed older woman, no less — asked John McCain in South Carolina. He laughed, and there were no repercussions. Contrast that with McCain’s immediate repudiation of a conservative talk show host who used Obama’s middle name in introducing McCain.

But the most problematic part of the gender equation in this campaign has been more subtle — and perhaps more ominous for a future female candidate not named Clinton. Watching Obama, I’ve been wondering whether the country, particularly the male half, can comfortably fit a woman into its mental picture of a president. Obama’s success stems in large part from his ability to use rhetoric to inspire and persuade. The country has scant experience of a woman in that role.

“The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man,” said Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “Barack Obama’s appeal and charisma is uniquely his own, but it also fits with an age-old history of men who electrify followers. . . . We don’t have an image, we don’t have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat.”

That may not be coming anytime soon. Gender isn’t the most restricting force in American life. It remains a force to be reckoned with.

* By Ruth Marcus (March 5, 2008)