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Who Do Women Want?

Hillary thinks she has the votes of smart, educated women wrapped up -- and she may, but many are reluctant to admit it, at least until she becomes a better candidate.

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A friend was out collecting signatures for Bill Bradley on the West Side not long ago and was taken aback to hear people agreeing to sign "as long as you're not collecting for Hillary too." Most of these comments, he noticed, came from women: "They'd say things like 'Oh, they' -- meaning women; of course they never say we -- 'will vote for her, but they won't tell anybody.' "

Another friend was at a swell dinner party on the East Side. "There were eight at my table," he recalls. "Four men. Four women. Among the men, all four were for her -- one weakly, two strongly, one somewhere in the middle. The women? One vote for. And even that one didn't have anything particularly good to say about her."

A friend's mother, an intellectual who lives on the Upper East Side, sums up the attitude of her set like this. "Intelligent, uptown Jewish women feel that eventually, they will vote for her," this woman says. "But they'll do it because they can't vote for Giuliani, and because they're too civic-minded not to vote." And that's about it.

These are mere anecdotes, but if anecdotes aren't enough for you, I introduce poll numbers. Quinnipiac College, in its October poll about the Senate race, showed Hillary leading Rudy among all women. That would include black women, who back Hillary by about twelve to one. Among white women? The survey -- and this is based on 484 white women, enough to mean something statistically -- shows Giuliani ahead, 48 to 38. We may assume that many of these pro-Rudy women are Republicans, of course, but the women in my anecdotes aren't; in fact, most regard the mayor as a human being in only the most grudging, technically physiological sense. And besides, look: Any quasi-feminist woman should be running ahead of Giuliani among women by at least fifteen points.

Italians vote for Italians; Long Islanders support Long Islanders; young people back young candidates; and so forth. But it seems that lots of women like Hillary don't like Hillary. What gives?

Hillary was this big magnet for disaster, and everything in her path attached itself to her. "She forces us to understand the contradictions of our own generation," says novelist Mary Gordon.

"She does push everybody's buttons about women and power," says the radical cultural critic Ellen Willis, who doesn't have much use for Hillary's politics but is rather sympathetic to the First Lady with respect to questions of how she fails, or succeeds, in representing All Women. "But I never thought of her as somebody who was supposed to bring credit to me."

Willis may not have, but I suspect more than a few women did. Or let's put it this way: For baby-boomer women -- i.e., professional, liberal women who wear the battle decorations of having invaded the gentlemen's clubs that were the law firms and P.R. firms and doctors' offices of the seventies -- Hillary was the avatar of their expectations. Whether they wanted it or not; whether she wanted it or not. She was. She was supposed to represent them well. These women watched her in a way they never watched Nancy Reagan or Barbara Bush, who were from a planet populated by women who actually considered it normal to be introduced as "Mrs. husband's full name," and who didn't matter anyway. Hillary did matter, and everything she did mattered. Not just politically. Viscerally.

They started out loving her, or wanting to. But the intervening years have brought forth too many questions. Was she a good feminist or a bad feminist? Was she refusing to just stand by her man Tammy Wynette-style, or was she, in the end, just standing by her man? Did she know what Bill was up to and pretend to ignore it? Would leaving him have been an act of bravery or a pointless defenestration of her power? Was she ambitious lady tiger or victim, or both, depending on what was convenient at the time?

It's possible a different sort of woman -- one with a sharper sense of humor, say, or one who was more "like the guys" -- could have deflected these questions with more dexterity. But Hillary couldn't deflect them. She was this big magnet for disaster, and everything in her path attached itself to her. "She forces us to understand the contradictions of our own generation," says the novelist Mary Gordon, an HRC supporter. "We're transitional. When we were 13, we were singing 'My Boyfriend's Back.' Five years later, we were marching for abortion rights. And after that, we've all had to make choices about career and family, and they haven't always been good choices. Maybe looking at Hillary is looking at the reality of ourselves rather than the fantasy of ourselves."

Maybe. But there are women who don't see their own shortcomings in Hillary. They see hers. One Manhattan liberal feminist I spoke with said that "something really changed fundamentally with her handling of the Lewinsky thing." Hillary said it was a vast conspiracy. But then came the DNA test proving it wasn't just a conspiracy, and "Hillary has never acknowledged that her characterization was self-serving and dishonest. She never corrected the record. She's never said, 'I can't condone what my husband has done.' "

Here's the rub, from a campaign perspective: Hillary's woman problem is not a political problem. Political problems have political solutions. But this is a psychological problem, or an emotional problem. What's the solution to that?

Perhaps it doesn't need a solution. If these women say they're holding their noses and voting for her, well, that's that. But come next fall, if she seems to be taking these women for granted, they'll sense that, too, at which point Grandpa Munster, or even Rudy himself, might start looking good.

No, Hillary needs to persuade these women. Maybe she does need to own up -- to say, at the very least, that she accepts responsibility for her part in the scandal. She definitely needs to make them forget about Monica and the whole sorry melodrama and make the race about their futures, and hers. Whatever she does, she needs to be authentic about it. Not seem. Be.

My friend's Upper East Side mom suggests a possible political answer: Be a better candidate. "We all know we still have to be 50 percent better than men," she says. "So far, Hillary's 50 percent worse." In other words, outfoxing Giuliani would mark her as neither victim nor shrew, but just another smart, competent woman. Hey, it's a start.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com.


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