They came of age during the feminist movement. They told young girls to aim higher than they had. And at first, they were compelled by the idea of making Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton the first woman president.
“There was that feeling of woman power and wanting to give her the chance to be my candidate,” said Susan McGee, 59, a retired teacher from Canaan, N.H.
But somewhere along the way, women like McGee shifted their loyalty to Sen. Barack Obama, moved more by his pledge to change the Washington culture than by Clinton’s appeal to “make history.”
Almost two dozen interviews with female voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada offer insight into why this coveted group has proved fickle in early Democratic primary voting.
Younger women tend to rank the gender milestone below other considerations. Older women confess to being torn.
Kelly Wetzler, 25, a history teacher, and Sophia Kirschenman, 20, a student, fall into the first category.
They gave little thought to sentiments expressed by women their age and decades their senior: As a woman, you support Clinton to further the status of women everywhere.
“Not even my mom is like that,” Wetzler said Monday at an Obama rally in Reno, Nev. “She doesn’t take race or gender into consideration.”
Kirschenman was somewhat more moved by the gender argument — but not ultimately convinced by it.
“It was compelling. Her being a woman gives her a couple of extra points in my book. But I try to look at the issues.”
The result of the dilemma facing Democratic female voters has been a split decision. Obama won Iowa with a majority of women.
Five days later, Clinton took New Hampshire when women swung back to her.
Ever since then, the campaigns — each of which considers the other’s win an aberration — have been studying ways to fix what went wrong and replicate what they did right with women, who made up 57 percent of Democratic voters in the first two voting states.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday found the competition growing fiercer. Clinton holds an 11-percentage-point lead among women nationally, but that margin shrunk from 39 points a month ago, the poll found.
The latest battlefield in the fight for the women’s vote has been perhaps the most emotive, hot-button issue for many Democratic women: abortion.
The Obama campaign launched a preemptive strike Monday, aiming to frame the candidate’s abortion rights voting record as an Illinois state senator before Clinton did it for him.
The Obama campaign finished a mail piece, set to hit Nevada households Thursday, accusing Clinton of “false” and “misleading” attacks on his abortion votes.
His campaign also convened a conference call between reporters and Illinois abortion rights activists, who vouched for his record.
The Clinton campaign organized a rebuttal call less than 90 minutes later.
Obama aides attribute his New Hampshire loss, in part, to their inability to respond quickly enough to a direct mail piece sent to voters on the weekend before the primary.
The mailer described Obama as “unwilling to take a stand” on Illinois abortion bills and portrayed Clinton as a defender of abortion rights.
There is room for debate on Obama’s record: He voted “present” on seven abortion bills, contending it was part of a strategy favored by some abortion rights advocates, including Planned Parenthood, to spare politically vulnerable Democrats from casting votes that could be problematic during an election.
Advocates aligned with Clinton argued that Obama should have stood up for women, not a strategy. They hold it up as an example of Obama failing to follow up his words with action.
Determined not to lose women’s votes over the issue, Becky Carroll, the national director of Women for Obama, stationed herself in Nevada eginning last week.
The campaign assembled a rapid response team of local abortion rights activists to counter what they view as misinformation.
Clinton aides, meanwhile, said they fell short in Iowa because of too little outreach to younger women — a deficiency they began to address in New Hampshire and continue to address as they move toward the Feb. 5 primary states.
The campaign introduced a Facebook page where voters can submit questions, and Clinton appeared in a video answering several of them. Chelsea Clinton has also made more solo appearances in the past week.
“You are going to see more explicit efforts to make sure young voters are included,” said Ann Lewis, a senior Clinton adviser, citing a more extensive Internet strategy. “We understand this is the Wi-Fi generation.”
But such tactics may not move Wetzler, the teacher in Nevada who backs Obama. In the end, she decided gender could not be the deciding factor in her vote.
She considered Clinton but said there was “no way I could vote for her, because she seemed like she was part of the machine.
“I want a president I would actually like,” Wetzler said. Obama “has so much charisma. I find him to be incredibly inspiring.”
Jane Vallier, a professor of women’s studies at Iowa State University, had a similar experience. She committed herself to Clinton but flirted with Obama after hearing him speak in Boone, Iowa, on New Year’s Eve.
“There was an aura about him that I found very compelling,” Vallier said.
So she was torn.
“I would elect her as a beacon of hope,” Vallier said of Clinton at the time. “It was important to me [to elect a woman president], after a lifetime of investment.”
Vallier stayed with Clinton — but in the end, even she did not make the decision based on gender.
“We knew far too little about Obama,” Vallier said Monday in an e-mail explaining her vote. “Even if we don’t like it, Hillary is an open book. Obama is a mystery.”