Women. What do they really want?
That question has been replaying in the imaginations of politicians, pollsters, purveyors and pundits since Sigmund Freud first framed it. Freud concluded, of course, that women really wanted to be men and invented a theory of envy that women find compelling only after too many Diet Cokes and no rest area for miles.
Otherwise, um, no thanks.
Though Freud is unwelcome in most intellectual parlors these days, Hillary Clinton's candidacy has made the father of psychology seem prescient. In recent weeks, Clinton seems to have picked up a Y chromosome somewhere and morphed into the manliest of Democrats.
The candidate who initially aimed for the women's vote, calling her campaign a "conversation" and convening "chats," has suddenly swilled beer and Crown Royal chasers with boys in the bar, stumped from pickups and displayed her "testicular fortitude," as an Indiana labor leader recently described her.
The women's vote, meanwhile, has splintered. Important feminist leaders including Susan Sarandon, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and women's rights historians Alice Kessler-Harris and Linda Gordon side with Barack Obama. And black women vote overwhelmingly for the black candidate (about 80%).
What happened? Though Clinton has done well with women who have constituted about 60% of voters in Democratic primaries why aren't more of them supporting the first woman with a shot at the presidency? Or are these questions not really the right ones to ask? Is it possible that it isn't A Woman voters are rejecting, but a particular woman? Is it possible Clinton is the wrong candidate, who just happens to be a woman?
A complete postmortem on Clinton's campaign might be premature, but a few observations are possible. We know, for instance, that Clinton has been doing best among older women. She also has earned the support of working-class women, an unlikely group given Clinton's unfamiliarity with that particular club.
Is their loyalty a function of Clinton's generous health and family leave plans? Or did her tears in a coffee shop touch the hearts of women similarly battle-weary and worn down?
Probably a little of both. Older women remember the struggles of their generation and Clinton's. And though working women might not share Clinton's Ivy League education and limousine life, they know something about making do.
As for renegades to Obama's camp, well, to each her own. Well-educated, better-employed women might identify more with the young, progressive couple from Chicago than with their less-fortunate sisters. Then again, they might just think Obama is the better candidate.
Obama is, for certain, the more feminine of the two.
Clinton is the tough, gritty pugilist who makes "Rocky Balboa look like a pansy," according to North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley. She's the one who voted for the war in Iraq and who has promised annihilation to Iran should that country attack Israel.
Obama, graceful as a ballet dancer even when guttering his bowling ball, never supported the war. He's the one who really wants to chat even with America's long-standing enemies. While he ponders a question, letting it roll around the lush valleys of his cultivated mind, she blurts populist bromides that sound more Bushian than Clintonian:
"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists," she said on ABC's This Week when asked for the name of an economist who agrees with her proposed gas-tax summer vacation. And then: "Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans."
Bring 'em on, sister! Elitism sucketh.
The answer to the question of what women want might no longer be a mystery. They want lots of different things not just "women things." They aren't monolithic, nor are they necessarily more fickle than men. They are diverse, smart, successful, strong, savvy … and sometimes, like men, they're not.
What they clearly don't want is a woman president just because she's a woman. If Clinton loses, it won't be because women betrayed her. It will be because Obama offered something that women and men want more. A fresh start free of tired tropes and battered baggage.
Giving Clinton her due, she has made history. She got up every day and kept smiling. She looked good and sometimes great, and older women marveled at her stamina. Not least, she prevailed in nearly every debate.
But her losses are her own. It was Hillary Clinton that particular woman, not A Woman who failed to cinch the destiny she presumed to be hers. In trying to be all things to all people an amorphous, tough-talking, beer-swilling, truck-stumping Mighty Hermaphrodite rather than the whoever she really is, Clinton lost voters' confidence.
Women, it turns out, are like men. They want a president they can trust.