Young Women, Feminism, And Hillary Clinton

It's interesting that in Iowa, Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama by a wide margin among younger women. The idea of a first woman president evidently is not of great appeal to them. I think this is part of a larger story about the decline, or perhaps the maturation, of American feminism. Women of Hillary Clinton's baby boom generation grew up being told they should stay at home with their children and instead went out into the workplace. They were rebels of a sort. And rebels who continued to question the "choice" (that wonderful euphemism for abortion) they made. Boomer men felt that they spent more time with their children than their fathers had and didn't worry about whether they'd spent enough. Boomer women, on the other hand--or so it has been in my observation--constantly questioned the choices they were making. Were they neglecting their children unduly? Were they pushing themselves forward enough in their career? This kind of self-questioning could seem tiresome. But it was also, I think, admirable: people trying hard to live the lives they thought they ought to live.

This helps to account for the brilliance of the "choice" euphemism. For politicians who were antichoice seemed to be challenging the choices these women had made in their lives, choices which they themselves agonized over. So they recoiled against antichoice politicians and supported with huge enthusiasm those who said they were pro-choice.

Today's young women voters are different. They were not raised by mothers who told them they had a duty to stay home with their children. They were raised by mothers who told them they had all sorts of choices they could choose. And mothers who, in some cases, made their own choices which the girls resented--divorce, spending lots of time at the office. These young women don't react defensively to antichoice politicians and don't feel a need to be liberated from restraints that were never urged on them. In fact, it appears that the percentage of mothers of children under 5 not working outside the home has been on the increase for a decade or so. Politically, the idea of a first woman president does not transfix them--or at least not enough for them to prefer Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. At least in the Iowa caucuses.

Interestingly, it was Hillary Clinton's husband who, in my view, sapped the morale of boomer feminism. One of its great tenets had been that sexual harassment was an offense that could not be excused. The high moment came in the hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas, when feminists insisted that Anita Hill's testimony must be believed. But when considerably more serious (and in my view more credible) charges of sexual harassment were made against Bill Clinton, boomer feminists rallied to his defense. The Clintons were more important than the Cause. Hillary Clinton came out a winner from those episodes, with a Senate seat in New York from which she could run for the presidency. But now she is perhaps paying something in the nature of a price for the tarnishing of the boomer feminist ideal by her husband in which she was a participant and enabler.

By Michael Barone