Dozens of interviews in New Hampshire showcase support for the woman best poised to become the first female president and for her rival, Bernie Sanders
Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton came to New Hampshire after a humbling third-place defeat in the Iowa caucuses. The day before the presidential primary, at a coffee shop in Portsmouth, a woman asked her a question that provoked a rare display of emotion from the candidate trying to be the first female president of the United States.
How do you do it? Marianne Pernold asked.
Clinton met Pernolds gaze. For a moment, these two women, who came of age during the feminist and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s, connected there at Cafe Espresso. Clintons eyes watered. Her voice wavered. Its not easy, the candidate confessed. The stirring interaction grabbed headlines across the world, and women helped power Clinton to an astonishing primary win over then senator Barack Obama the next day.
It was a chick question, Pernold told the Guardian from the same cafe. I wanted to know how she did it.
But the woman who made Clinton cry is undecided in 2016, reflecting a presidential race that has veered from a focus on the highest glass ceiling toward an insurgency: Clinton is once again braced for a loss in New Hampshire, where she trails Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian democratic socialist from next-door Vermont, by nearly 13 points.
Perhaps more worrisome for the road ahead: at a time when more women than ever identify as feminists, Clinton is having trouble persuading women especially young women to rally behind her. And now it appears her candidacy has exposed very public fault lines in the modern feminist movement, as Gloria Steinem was forced to apologize over the weekend for saying boys are with Bernie and that young women arent serious in their politics.
Intimate interviews over the past week with 31 Democratic-leaning New Hampshire women, all of whom said they planned to vote in Tuesdays primary, revealed a passionate divide over the complex and fractured legacy of the woman better poised than anyone in history to become the first female president.
Ranging from a juice bar packed with Clinton fans meeting Steinem to the living room of an Occupy Wall Street activist working for Sanders, the in-depth conversations were declarative (Im not voting with my uterus) and defiant (this is her time) but very much in discord (I want to see a female president before I die).
All 31 women rejected the notion that the US had become post-gender since Clintons loss to Obama in 2008, and each of them agreed they would like to see a woman in the White House. They just couldnt agree on whether that woman should be Hillary Clinton.
Women for Bernie
During morning rush hour last week, a handful of women and a couple of men stood on a street corner in Manchester, the New Hampshire city candidates visit most, waving signs. One read: Women For Bernie. They cheered when passing cars honked, and afterward sat with a Guardian reporter at a nearby diner to talk politics.
Its almost insulting that people think were going to choose a candidate because shes the same sex as us, Mary Heslin said over coffee.
Sanders is the best candidate for women, Heslin said, pointing to his single-payer healthcare proposal and his plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour as two examples that would benefit working-class and middle-class women.
I can wait for a female president, she said, and itll be a nice thing, but its not what Ill vote based on.
In a follow-up conversation at her home a few blocks down the road, Elizabeth Ropp, an activist Sanders volunteer, urged similar patience: I hope that we do elect a woman to be president, she said, but I want it to be the right woman. I want it to be the right person first and foremost.
Clintons struggle to inspire young women baffles some feminists who long dreamed that it would be Clinton who finally broke the 227-year male stranglehold on the most powerful political office in the world.
After all, she was the first lady who broke with tradition and set up camp in the presidents wing of the White House. She was the woman who declared, in Beijing of all places, that womens rights are human rights and who continued to advance womens rights worldwide. She has weathered a litany of political attacks and scandals and, as Barack Obama said recently, did it all backwards in heels. As Clinton told students at New England College in Henniker this weekend: I do have a somewhat narrower path that I try to walk.
On Saturday, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve in that role, caused a stir while campaigning in New Hampshire when she said: Theres a special place in hell for women who dont help each other! Steinem, the feminist leader, wrote on Facebook she had misspoke in saying on a talkshow that women get more activist as they grow older. And when youre younger, you think: Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.
Clintons campaign has tried to mobilize young women around the symbolism of her candidacy, using feminism to help her campaign make the case against Sanders. She recently softened her stump speech, and added more emphasis to her role as an advocate for women. She has dispatched youthful female surrogates, including her daughter, Chelsea. Demi Lovato performed at one of Clintons campaign rallies, each of which features the Katy Perry anthem Roar, and Lena Dunham has spoken on the candidates behalf.
And on Sunday, Bill Clinton lashed out against sexist comments against his wife that he implied were made by supporters of Sanders. In his tirade, at a campaign stop in Milford, he referenced an editorial in the Nation in which Joan Walsh wrote about the fascinating and stunningly sexist reactions to her daughters job with the Clinton campaign.
Yet the latest CNN/WMUR survey showed Clinton trailing Sanders among New Hampshire women by eight points. In Iowa, women 29 years old and younger voted for Sanders by a remarkable margin of nearly 6 to 1.
Honestly, Clinton said at last weeks democratic debate, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. Its really quite amusing to me.
I dont feel Hillary represents me
The Clinton campaign office in Salem, by the Massachusetts border, is powered with young women: GIRLS RUN THE WORLD and MADAME PRESIDENT, read the posters decorating the walls; the brush-your-shoulders-off image of Clinton looking at her phone in sunglasses gazes down from above, under the word #READY.
Standing beneath a sea of homemade posters at the makeshift field office, volunteer Kay Galloway says Clinton now is seen as far more capable than people were aware of, echoing many supporters who see Sanders proposals for squashing income inequality as impractical. It is long overdue that we have a female president here in the United States, she said.
But for Nyomi Guzman, an undecided recent college graduate with a degree in womens studies, Sanders message about a rigged economy is gripping and she finds Clintons ties to Wall Street concerning. Yet she worries Sanders might not be able deliver on all that he promises.
That Clinton is a woman standing on the precipice of a gender barrier is notable, Guzman said, but it is not galvanizing her support for Clinton.
Maybe if a black woman was running for president it would be different, Guzman said. But as a black, Latina woman, I dont really feel Hillary represents me.
Several women interviewed by the Guardian, including Guzman, wondered whether the excitement around the symbolism of Clintons candidacy has dimmed since 2008, when she declared that women had helped her put about 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling and then, months later, the US elected its first black president.
For voters like Katie Delahaye Paine of Durham, New Hampshire, who supported Obama in the 2008 primary, Clinton is the logical heir.
Ive never done anything like this before, she told the Guardian by phone, in between knocking on doors for Clinton. Paine said that while she appreciates Sanders message, she believes Clinton stands the best chance of defeating the eventual Republican nominee Donald Trump is widely expected to take New Hampshire on his way to a southern stronghold and then working across the aisle to enact her agenda.
Ive already voted for the revolution, Paine said, echoing her pitch to neighbors who answer the door. This time I want someone who can actually get things done.
Passion is everything, across generations
Linn Duvall Harwell, a declared feminist at the age of 92 and a longtime Clinton supporter, said this is the century for women, and the pinnacle of that would be a female president.
She finishes a job that she takes on and she holds the issues which I have held dear all my life, Harwell said, at a female-focused campaign event with Steinem before she made the controversial boys with Bernie comments.
In 1929, Harwells mother died at 34 from a self-performed abortion. Her death inspired Harwell to become a frontline activist for womens rights. Harwell said she clearly remembers the day the US supreme court decided Roe v Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion across the country. She said Clinton has been a champion of womens rights and believes her election would be a victory for the feminist movement.
It would mean everything, Harwell said of Clinton winning the presidency.
For a relatively positive Democratic campaign, the difference between Clinton and Sanders may come down to what the candidates said they hoped to be the focus of their nominating contest: issues.
Eva Castillo, a Manchester police commissioner and immigration activist originally from Venezuela, said immigration policy is a top priority for her this year. But when it comes to choosing between two candidates with similar platforms, the choice for her comes down to heart.
I am very sensitive and it seems a very intellectual thing, but it doesnt feel to me as if it is coming from her heart, Castillo said of Clinton, at a breakfast spot in Manchester. For me its very important, that passion that you got. I am not saying that if she was elected she would not represent our rights, but I think to me, passion is everything.
Castillo remains somewhat ambivalent about the outcome of the Democratic primary, as long as that candidate can beat the Republicans. Though she expressed concern about Sanders ability to win the general election against a nominee like the Florida senator Marco Rubio, she again returned to likability over electability.
I really dont feel the here from Hillary, Castillo said, touching her heart. I really dont feel the passion. Shes got a beautiful speech, shes got a beautiful script, everything but it really does not connect with me.
Acros three generations of the Cushing family, women are still trying to connect the dots toward something like history and progress.
Shes come to see the first woman president of the United States, Marsha Cushing said proudly, holding hands with her seven-year-old granddaughter, Katherine, at a rally in Nashua.
Cushings daughter, Anna Cushing Henry, a volunteer for Bill Clintons 1996 campaign who went on to work in the White House, said she would like both her children to grow up in a country where a black president was succeeded by a female president.
Shes a powerhouse, Henry said as she tended to her son, who had just fallen in the snow. Shes really ready for the job, emotionally and personally. And obviously shes an amazing leader. Shes been through it all, having seen what her husband had to do.
But I wouldnt vote for any woman, Henry added. It would have to be someone I thought could be a really strong leader.
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