WASHINGTON - As Hillary Clinton officially acknowledges today that Barack Obama has bested her for the Democratic nomination, many leading feminists argue that even in defeat, Clinton's run will smooth the path for future female contenders for the White House.
Women have been struggling to answer whether her near-miss was a win or a loss for the modern women's movement. Some see Clinton's loss as a sign that the door to the Oval Office is still closed to women, and with few high-ranking female politicians in line to try for the presidency in upcoming elections, older women wonder if they will live to see a woman take the presidential oath of office.
Still, most leaders of women's organizations argue that Clinton's success in making it through the entire primary season - raising record amounts of money and attracting record numbers of voters - marks a historic breakthrough that ultimately will be a boon for women seeking the nation's highest office.
"It makes us feel schizophrenic," said Martha Burk, immediate past chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "For the first time in history, we can see that a woman can and will be president," she said. But the campaign, which Burk and many other feminists said was riddled with sexist attacks in the media, "exposed barriers that we thought we had overcome years ago," she said.
Legions of Clinton's female supporters, especially older women who lived through the struggles of the second wave of feminism in the '60s and '70s, are expected to show up today at Clinton's concession speech at noon in Washington. And many are not prepared to concede her loss, presenting Obama with an added challenge of winning over ardent female Clinton backers he will probably need to capture the presidency.
Hundreds of women have logged onto Clinton's campaign website, with many insisting they will not vote for "that man" - Obama - and urging Clinton to run as an independent or challenge Obama's nomination at the August convention in Denver. Many on the website pledged to vote for Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee.
Other websites have sprung up to denounce Democrats for picking Obama. One - called PUMA, an acronym for the sentiment "Party Unity My Ass" - features postings by Clinton supporters saying they will never vote for Obama, even if it means electing McCain.
Yet leaders of longtime women's organizations, while disappointed at Clinton's loss, are urging female followers to recognize the historic advances Clinton made for women, and to rally around the Democratic nominee. A vote for McCain, they warn, would lead to a Supreme Court that would overturn the victories veteran feminists secured in the '60s and the '70s, including the right to an abortion.
"She really proved that women can run for president, which boosted the credibility for all women who run for office," said Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a fund-raising organization that strongly backed Clinton. "Today, people are very and upset," but "the election is in five months," Malcolm said. "That's a lot of time to listen to John McCain" and conclude that Obama would be better for women, said Malcolm, who herself endorsed Obama yesterday.
Clinton's campaign indeed made the nation more comfortable with the idea of a female president, and the next woman to seek the job won't be such a novelty, feminist activists agree. But her campaign also revealed the difficulties of handling the gender issue.
Ideally, a female candidate should be able to sell herself to the electorate on the basis of her platform, leadership qualities, and visions for the country, several feminists said. But gender inevitably is a factor, and the candidate cannot pretend otherwise.
Clinton many times found herself in that conundrum. She used gender to her advantage during the campaign, exhorting voters to "make history" by electing a woman, and several times cheekily referring to herself as a "girl." Regarding her opponent, Clinton repeated Harry S. Truman's motto, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," adding that "I'm very comfortable in the kitchen" - a comment that underscored both her femaleness and her toughness.
But Clinton was also the target of brazenly sexist comments, her supporters said. "I cross my legs every time she talks," commentator Tucker Carlson said on MSNBC, a remark that is among the most reviled by feminists because of the suggestion Clinton is emasculating.
Anonymous Internet postings about Clinton include descriptions not printable in this newspaper.
The New York senator was right to be appalled, women's advocates agree. But Clinton's response - to repeatedly accuse the media of undermining her candidacy with sexism - may not have helped her and may have turned off younger women who cringe at the notion that women are victims, some activists said.
"One of the aspects of the campaign that has been really shocking to me is how outrageous the sexism was toward her in the media," said Faye Waddleton, president of the New York-based Center for the Advancement of Women. Still, "some of the complaining she engaged in was something of a distraction and unfortunate, and it was not becoming of the stature which she has sought to achieve," she said.
Clinton's scolding about sexism also does not resonate as much among younger women, who have not endured the sort of gender bias and discrimination women of Clinton's age suffered when they were beginning their careers, said Burk, of the national council. Since many of these woman are just out of college - "the last meritocracy," and a place where females now outnumber males - they don't react with the same anger as women who themselves have experienced decades of such slights, Burk said.
"I don't relate to being a victim at all, and never feel like sexism is holding me down," said Jennifer Baumgardner, a feminist writer in her 30s whose book, "Abortion and Life," will be published in the fall. While Clinton surely suffered from sexist attacks, " a defensive stand never gets you anywhere," she said.
One stark lesson from Clinton's campaign is that despite the gender politics of the race, women alone could not get her the nomination. While women make up the overwhelming majority of the Democratic electorate - 60 percent in some states - Clinton still lost to Obama, who won over many black women and young women.
The next female contender for president, Waddleton said, will have to wrangle with gender issues, but will still have an easier path because of Clinton's candidacy.
"She is a transformative figure, as Mr. Obama has been called. Unfortunately, she is transformative in a way that is difficult and painful for out society," Waddleton said. "We had to move through a phase where it was possible to think that a woman could be president" so the next female contender can compete, she said.