Contending with gender: pondering President Hillary Clinton

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

DES MOINES, Iowa – It easy to find Iowa women who believe gender should not be the deciding factor in choosing a presidential candidate. Harder to find are women who doubt that electing the country’s first female president would shape the future of the country.

“Personally, I feel like gender is important,” said Anne Bailey, deputy field director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, who volunteered at a Hillary Clinton rally in Cedar Rapids. “Representation is important. When women are making policies, they’re putting issues that affect women at the top of the agenda.”

Heading into Monday night’s caucuses, Clinton enjoyed a slight lead  over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders here. Not only is she given a better chance at being the Democratic nominee, a win in Iowa would also make history – eight years after Iowa Democrats chose Barack Obama and pushed her into third place.

According to the final Des Moines Register poll released Saturday, Clinton was outpolling Sanders among women by 10 points.  The newspaper noted that women make up the majority of the caucus electorate in Iowa.

Writing recently in the Register, University of Iowa political science professor Sara Mitchell argued that gender matters: “My basic argument in the editorial is that democratic women in legislatures are more likely to vote to help women’s issues.”

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Mitchell said, however, that  younger female voters have yet to experience gender-based inequality and discrimination in the workplace and life at large. This makes them less likely to believe in Clinton’s potential to make a difference for women if she reaches the Oval Office.

“Younger women don’t see gender as something that will hinder their chances. When you’re 20, you don’t see the world through those lenses,” said Mitchell. “Gender issues just don’t trigger for younger women in the same way.”

“Hillary’s gender problem is that young women are not movement feminists,” said Cary Covington, a colleague of Mitchell’s who studies presidential politics.

A large number of young female voters, in fact, support Sanders. Shortly after the Vermont senator wrapped up a speech in Davenport, 24-year-old Kerry Peters said that while she doesn’t doubt men “have the upper hand,” she has never experienced blatant sexism or gender discrimination. Nor does she believe she should vote for Clinton simply because they are both women.

She is caucusing for Sanders.

“Even though Bernie is a man, he…is a voice for women’s rights,” she said.

The phrase “as a woman” should not even be part of the electoral calculus, said Rania Batrice, Iowa communications director for the Sanders campaign.

“When you’re choosing a presidential candidate, your choice has to be based on the person,” she said. “Saying ‘as a woman’ means I can’t think of anything beyond my gender.”

Some Iowa women, however, are taking the gender factor well into account.

“Hillary being a woman is the biggest thing that’s keeping me from making a decision,” Karen Nichols, an Iowan, said at the Hamburg Inn, an iconic presidential campaign stop in Iowa City. “She’s the strongest voice for women right now.”

Nichols said Sanders brought essential issues to the table, including his signature policies on income inequality. “I hope that he stays in the race a little while longer, so these issues can be still talked about,” she said. Still, Clinton has done an expert job at championing women’s issues on the trail, Nichols said, and “she’s the strongest voice for women.”

When Sue Dvorsky, former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party and Clinton supporter,  thinks about Clinton’s relationship with women, her thoughts turn to the example she sets for younger girls. Over Sunday morning coffee in Coralville, Iowa., she recalled an event a few months ago. A young girl told Clinton she was often bullied at school, and she asked the Democratic front-runner what she would do about it if she were elected president.

Clinton brought the little girl up on stage and started talking to her one-on-one. “The whole room stopped. The two of them were talking like a grandmother and a granddaughter would,” she said. “Being a woman, a mother, a grandmother, is part of who Hillary is. She’s portraying herself honestly as who she is.”

Photo at top: Hillary Clinton poses with female supporters at a Get out the Caucus event in Cedar Rapids. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)