June 6, 2008 / 5:35 AM / 11 years ago

As Clinton's bid ends, sexism debate will not

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Was she or wasn’t she?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington June 4, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy may soon be a thing of the past but debate will rage over whether the first woman to make it so far in the U.S. presidential contest was a victim of sexism in the media and on the campaign trail.

Her campaign draws to a close on Saturday when she is set to back apparent Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

For some, there’s no question that sexism was a constant feature of the former first lady’s groundbreaking campaign.

They cite T-shirts saying “Life’s a Bitch, so Don’t Vote for One,” newsman Chris Matthews pinching Clinton on the cheek, descriptions of the New York senator as bitchy and shrill or newscasters bantering over a pen that played a soundtrack of her laugh.

Others say the claim of sexism is laughable. Clinton could not have gotten as far as she did without being the wife of a president so she can’t complain about being a woman, they say.

“Women are held to a different standard, and it hurt her,” said New York-based pollster Mickey Blum. “It’s also a reason a lot of women rallied to her and have stuck with her, even more than they would have, because there was a sense she was being treated unfairly.”

Debate is inevitable as long as some hear sexism and others don’t hear it at all, said Elizabeth Ossoff, professor of political psychology at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

Consider the incident when hecklers interrupted Clinton with shouts and signs reading “Iron My Shirt,” she said.

“What if someone raised a sign reading, ‘Shine my Shoes’ with Obama speaking? We all know that’s not OK,” Ossoff said.

“When somebody says ‘Iron My Shirt,’ there’s an element that it’s not OK but there’s an element that it’s kind of funny.

“People are comfortable with sexism and accept it,” she said.

Among those seeing sexism was Clinton herself, who responded to the hecklers by saying, “Ah, the remnants of sexism, alive and well.”

Months later in a Washington Post interview, she decried “sexism” in the campaign. “It’s been deeply offensive to millions of women,” Clinton said.

Those claims make some conservative observers angry.

“Charges of sexism have become Hillary’s rote strategy for evading scrutiny,” commentator Camille Paglia recently wrote. “Will every losing woman candidate now turn on the waterworks and claim to be maimed by male pride and prejudice?

“Sexism has nothing to do with it,” she said.

‘BE A GUY’

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan called the charge untrue, noting Clinton got support from “tough” men across the country.

“Hillary got her share, more than her share, of their votes. She should be a guy and say thanks,” wrote Noonan, a former speech write for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and author of the book “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.”

“It is blame-gaming, whining, a way of not taking responsibility, of not seeing your flaws and addressing them.”

Those who do detect sexism say it can be subtle as using the term Mrs. Clinton but not Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain or the reporters covering Clinton who refer to women as “chicks” and “girls.”

Or it can be blatant. At a campaign event in South Carolina, a woman asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain: “How do we beat the bitch?”

McCain joked about getting a “translation” of the comment, laughed, and replied: “That’s an excellent question.”

Glamour magazine, in a recent online survey, found 12 percent of respondents thought sexism played a big role.

But roughly a third each found sexism’s role was moderate, minor or nonexistent. Seeing sexism as largely an issue of the past, some women find the notion that they should back a candidate merely because she’s a woman insulting.

And even if sexism was a factor, it was not Clinton’s undoing, said political strategist Tanya Melich.

“I really believe there was a lot of sexism on cable television and talk shows, but I don’t think it made the significant difference in her losing,” said Melich. “Their problem was their strategy.”

The debate gives some feminists like Eleanor Smeal, founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation, renewed drive.

“One of the legacies of the Clinton campaign is that it’s been a wake-up call, really, to the women’s movement of how far we have to go,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. We are in much worse shape than we thought.”

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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