DERRY, NH – “I don’t want to sound old,” says Gina Hutchinson. Like almost every other woman interviewed at recent Hillary Clinton events in New Hampshire, Hutchinson hesitated when a reporter asked her age. (It’s 67.)
She doesn’t want to sound old, but in the waning minutes of a rain-soaked Clinton event at the Derry Boys and Girls’ Club, she wanted to say what Hillary Clinton means to her, and it meant tracing the years they both lived. “She came out of high school at the same time as us,” Hutchinson says. She pauses. “We went into teaching and nursing. She became an attorney.”
Hutchinson, strictly speaking, went into teaching, but also politics. She served in New Hampshire’s 400-member House of Representatives for two years, until 2008. New Hampshire happens to be a rare bastion of women holding political office: Both its senators, its governor, and one of its two representatives in the House are women.
Still, there’s one position no woman has held. “No one ever said to any of us,” Hutchinson says, “when you grow up, you can be president.”
In 2008, reeling from a massive defeat in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton unexpectedly won New Hampshire on the strength of female voters like Hutchinson, who made up 57 percent of the electorate and went for her 46-34 over Barack Obama. Women had favored Obama in Iowa, only to swing back to Clinton in the Granite State. Now, in a twist few predicted, she finds herself not only trailing Bernie Sanders by double digits in the state – down 20 percent in last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll – but losing female voters of all ages by four points.
The conventional wisdom in 2008 was that Clinton ceded the history-making argument to Obama and should have made more of her gender. She’s doing so this time, but the message has been falling short. As young women flock to Bernie Sanders events and push back at a weekend of finger-wagging from older feminist icons, Clinton and her surrogates are struggling to rally New Hampshire women to her side.
For the (generally older) women who unstintingly support Clinton, it stings. “We’ve been voting for men for 50 years,” says Hutchinson of her generation. She adds, “In our generation, we moved mountains. Thanks, baby boomers.”
Headlines and poll numbers have suggested that many younger women feel something other than gratitude toward Clinton, or if they do, that it isn’t enough to sway their votes her way. (The young women in the first two contests of Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white. It remains to be seen whether Bernie Sanders can capture the imagination of young women of color.)
Young women who overwhelmingly support Sanders say it is because of his economic message and their discomfort with Clinton’s establishment ties. They also tell reporters things like, “It’s weird that an old, white guy would represent women better than an actual woman” (28-year-old Stephanie Hundley from Waterloo, Iowa to NPR), and “I am excited for a future in which we will have a female president, but I don’t think Hillary is that person for this generation” (Rachael Jennings, also 28, in Dublin, New Hampshire, to the Los Angeles Times.)
The candidate herself has been careful in how she talks about Sanders’ younger fans. “I personally am thrilled at the numbers of people, and particularly young people who are coming to support your campaign,” Clinton told Sanders at the MSNBC debate Thursday. “I hope that I will be able to earn their support. They may not support me now, but I support them, and we’ll work together.”
Her surrogates, on the other hand, haven’t hidden their frustration that Sanders has stolen Clinton’s revolutionary thunder. Campaigning alongside Clinton Saturday, Madeleine Albright levied her famous line, that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, with a pointed new context.
On Sunday, Clinton responded on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”“I think what she was trying to do – what she’s done in every setting I’ve ever seen her in going back 20-plus years – was to remind young women, particularly, that you know, this struggle, which many of us have been part of, is not over, and don’t be in any way lulled by the progress we’ve made,” Clinton said. Bill Clinton said Sunday that Sanders supporters had attacked Clinton supporters with “vicious trolling” that was often “sexist.”
By Sunday, Gloria Steinem had apologized for saying, “When you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” But as reporters returned to Sanders events to get young women’s indignant reactions to her words, which Sanders supporters saw as demeaning their intelligence and insulting their feminism, Steinem’s other remarks in that interview got lost.
“I find the young women very, very activist and they’re way more feminist than we are,” Steinem told Bill Maher in that interview Friday. “We were like 12 crazy ladies in the beginning, and now it’s the majority.” A recent Washington Post poll backs that up: 63 percent of women ages 18-34 identify as feminists, twelve points more than women in the 35-49 year-old bracket.
Steinem also returned to a theme she often summons when asked about whether young women are complacent. “I do think that gratitude never radicalized anybody,” she said. “I did not say thank you for the vote. I got mad on the basis of what was happening to me. And I think that that’s true of young women too.” She cited student debt and the pay gap.
Friday morning in New Hampshire, some of the female Democratic senators – all of whom have endorsed Clinton, with the visible exception of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – showed up at the Manchester YWCA to rally the vote. It was a snowy morning, a good moment for Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Debbie Stabenow to remind people that only female Senators showed up during the blizzard.
Arrayed in a row in jewel-tone blazers, joined by New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, activist Lilly Ledbetter and EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock, the senators introduce each other, round-robin style, as being the same way Clinton has presented herself: Pragmatic, yet inspirational. Battle-tested, including the battle against sexism.
“When folks talk about a revolution,” Stabenow says, letting the last word roll out with some swagger, “The revolution is electing the first woman president of the United States.” The senators keep referring to having “stories,” with the implication meaning that they have stories of being underestimated because they were women, but that they don’t have time to tell them today.
Listening to them was Tara Benson, a 44-year-old attorney from Bedford who had showed up to canvass for Clinton. “People think we’ve come so far for women’s rights. There’s still the glass ceiling. There’s violence against women worldwide,” she said. She said she loved when, at the MSNBC debate, Clinton responded to the charge that she was too cozy with Wall Street by saying, “Honestly, 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.”
“As a professional female with two young daughters, I want someone to inspire them to greatness,” Benson said, adding he believes Clinton has been held to a double standard. “She’s supposed to be this strong fighter, but she can’t be too aggressive.” Benson adds, “As someone who’s older and understands how things are done, I know she’s the one.”
Somehow, despite spending nearly a decade in the Senate and being six years older than Clinton, it’s Sanders who gets represented as the fresh face. Clinton is caught in the catch-22 of being the only woman who has gotten close to the Democratic nomination, by having gained some measure of power, only to be told that she is too compromised to be transformational.
For Clinton, all this must feel double-edged in more than one way. After all, she was told by more than one analyst that, in the words of the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, “the single biggest mistake that Clinton and her team made during the 2008 presidential bid” was not making more of the fact that she would be the first female president. Citing a Gallup poll that ranked Clinton’s potential to make history as the first female president as the most appealing thing about her, Cillizza wrote in March 2014, “Putting the historic nature of her candidacy at the forefront might well be Clinton’s best pushback against the idea that she is part of an old style of politics.”
It might well, but so far it hasn’t been. Perhaps this is a matter of time. “I think electing the first woman president is going to unleash a sense of emotion and pride from women across this country and from across the world,” Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY’s List, who was in New Hampshire campaigning for Clinton, told MSNBC.
But even Malcolm carefully couched what it means for the first woman to be president. “For 30 years people have been asking me, ‘Why should I vote for someone because she’s a woman? I say, ‘I wouldn’t vote for someone just because she’s a woman. But this is the icing on the cake.’”
Clinton may not need younger voters, or to win New Hampshire, to win the nomination. In 2008, when she faced another candidate who galvanized the youth vote, over 61 percent of the primary electorate across states was older than 45, according to an analysis by pollster Gary Langer. But she can’t afford to lose the broader support of women.
“Maybe it’s naïve,” says Tara Benson as the female senators wrap up at the YWCA, “but I would like to think that if she didn’t get the nomination, it wouldn’t be a referendum on her being a woman.”
It was time for the canvassers to hit the streets. A sudden and abrupt “This–” rang out from the speakers, like a mini-explosion, but then the audio begins in earnest. “This is my fight song,” Rachel Platten sang.
Clinton, who has begun going down the row of female senators to hug each one, reached Shaheen and began dancing. (She would be ridiculed on the internet for it later.)
After a tentative moment, the women all begin swaying together, arms linked.