“I’m a Rorschach test,” Hillary Clinton famously said of herself, describing the ways Americans projected their own hopes, anxieties, and fears about women onto her lightly padded shoulders. And having spent the last two months—dear God, has it been only two months?—bonking each other over the heads with our gender differences, race differences, and income and education disparities, Clinton and Obama supporters may not have learned all that much about their candidates. But we sure do know a lot about ourselves.
Democratic women, for instance, now recognize all of the invisible fault lines between first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave feminists, the post-feminists, the “shoulder pad” feminists, the Obama Girl feminists, the angry feminists, and the medicated ones. Having turned the entire primary season into a protracted exercise in group therapy, we have explored, deconstructed, and shared our collective way into a fog of gender enlightenment. Gloria Steinem has scolded us, Robin Morgan has disowned us, and Saturday Night Live has called us the B-word. It took the women in Ohio and Texas and Vermont and Rhode Island last week to remind us that endless group therapy isn’t a luxury everyone can afford.
As has been the case throughout the primary season, women broke big for Clinton again last Tuesday. In Ohio particularly, Clinton took two out of every three white women, and that split may have had less to do with internecine debates between soccer moms and tae kwon do moms than with working-class moms fretting about health insurance for the twins.
In Ohio, where one-third of voters are working class, 58 percent of Democrats said the economy was the most important issue to them, and they broke for Clinton. In both Texas and Ohio, Clinton took voters with no more than high-school diplomas by margins of six in 10. In Ohio she took workers earning less than $50,000 a year. None of which means Clinton is necessarily better for those who worry about the economy. It does suggest that those folks care more about their wallets than her pantsuits.
For months we’ve been witness to a primary campaign in which voters—like adolescents on a first date—cannot seem to stop talking and thinking about themselves. The novelty of all these firsts led us to line up behind the candidates that look most like us: Blacks and young people continue to vote for Obama. Women and folks older than 50 continue to support Clinton. But just as relationships tend to transition from the early fizz when all you can see is yourself reflected in your partner’s eyes, so, too, is this contest changing into a more sober scrutiny of the guy across the table. And for every woman who experiences sexist attacks against Clinton as echoes of the obnoxious boss who asked her to make coffee in 1986, there must be tens of women who still bring him that coffee every day, then head out for the night shift.
Perhaps the 2008 primary season will settle, once and for all, this question of whether identity politics is a luxury item or a necessity. And if it’s truly a luxury item, maybe like the mink stole, it’s on its way out. Perhaps at the end of all these months of peering in the mirror, we can stop looking for the candidate who embodies every slight and insult we’ve ever encountered and contemplate which of these people is better suited to govern. To be sure, the policy differences between Obama and Clinton may be meager. But there are differences of temperament and character that have nothing whatsoever to do with race or gender.
At the risk of offering up yet another gender-based generalization, I’ll wager that most women are ultimately pragmatic. And that for as many of us who define ourselves by the cut of our pocketbook, a lot more will vote what’s in it. Sure, we get a little tipsy at the symbolic value of seating the first woman president. But most of us will not cast a vote for that reason alone. As some of this newest wave of feminists keep reminding us, issues of class and race are as important to most women as gender is to the feminists who came before. The women who voted last Tuesday may have been saying less about themselves as women, as they were telling us about themselves as voters.
I’ve loved every minute of the great big gender intervention we women have staged these past weeks—the frank discussions about public tears, brutish husbands, and whether it’s sexist or respectful to be asked to speak first. It’s all been a long time coming, and it’s focused the mind, and the women’s movement, in all sorts of important ways.
But health reform and the Supreme Court and the war in Iraq and the economy are pragmatic problems and not merely symbolic ones. All this talk about women and America has been most illuminating, and I am now ready for it to be over. Hey, candidates? Enough about us; let’s talk about you. And what you can do for us.
A version of this article appeared in this week’s Newsweek.