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A pair of ironies clinched Clinton-Obama campaign

Misguided conversations about race and gender and too little attention to the lessons of history colored the Hillary Rodham Clinton-Barack Obama campaign, a group of history professors from across the country told an audience Saturday afternoon at the University of Minnesota.

But along with the ghost of Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote to invade Iraq, it was two bold ironies that tipped the scales in the contest between Democratic Party candidates, said Mitch Kachun, a professor of history at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo.

Obama’s platform of doing away with “old Washington gridlock” hurt Clinton because she was considered a part of it, he said. And as the campaign played out, “The possibility of having a first woman candidate was essentially trumped by the idea of having a first African-American candidate.”

Seven scholars chosen to share their campaign views drew a crowd to a Hubert H. Humphrey Center auditorium for the program titled “Clinton and Obama: Historians Reflect on Historic Candidates.” The event was part of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, a four-day meeting that attracted 1,300 college and university teachers across the globe who specialize in women’s history, gender and sexuality.

Presenters zeroed in on voting patterns, campaign media coverage and candidates’ messages, tactics and communication styles, which likely influenced some voters because both candidates veer from gender traditions in the ways they communicate.

Clinton emphasized her experience and a “toughness” that got her the label ” ‘dragon lady’ because she adopted this male persona,” Kachun said, and Obama showed a softer side than the traditional male leader. Kachun cited an article in the February issue of Newsweek by Martin Linsky, a faculty member at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, likening many of Obama’s traits and values — modesty, optimism and a willingness to delegate authority, for example — to qualities women often display. “Obama’s approach and demeanor distance him from the patriarchal, authoritative leader,” Kachun said.

Women voters weren’t predictable
Clinton planned on women’s’ votes to win the nomination, said Felicia Kornbluh of Duke University. But lopsided victories among older white women and Latinas in many states were largely offset by Obama’s popularity among African-American women and post-baby-boomer, college-educated white women. “And Sen. Clinton had a quite narrow view — as she revealed it, at any rate — of the interests or agenda of U.S. women voters,” she said. 

Clinton didn’t attempt to appeal to women with a feminist agenda, unlike Shirley Chisholm, an African-American woman who waged an unsuccessful campaign to become a Democratic presidential candidate in 1972. Chisholm was later quoted as saying, “I met far more discrimination as a woman than as an African-American.”

Her comment juxtaposes race and gender in a way that didn’t occur in the Clinton-Obama race, speakers at Saturday’s event said. They said they felt frustrated during the Obama-Clinton campaign as they repeatedly heard race and gender talked about separately rather than as two issues that can relate to each other,

“There is still some serious question about race and gender and where they intersect,” said  Hilary Green of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “rather than commentators talking about racism and sexism not existing.” The race vs. gender conversation misses the idea of how race and gender influence voters, Kachun said.

Green was among historians who also voiced their wishes for a better conceptual understanding of women’s history in media coverage of presidential campaigns and a longer view of American history in general. She was doing research on integration of the country’s public schools during the campaign, she said.

An open door for women
Clinton was defeated, not because she’s a woman but because of failures in strategy and organization and her original stand on the war in Iraq, said Susan Hartmann of Ohio State University. “Many Democrats and feminists voted for Obama because of his early opposition to the war,” she said.

Other speakers praised Clinton’s determination, effort and stamina. Ruth Rosen of the University of California at Berkeley called Clinton “a great candidate, but also as a victim” — of misogyny that particularly flourished in the blogosphere, along with fallout related to her husband’s legacy “and his mistakes.” Tera Hunter of Princeton University reminded the audience that Clinton wasn’t alone as a target of attacks. “Obama has also experienced vicious racist attacks,” she said.

Hillary Clinton won’t be the Democratic candidate for president, though her spot on the ticket as Obama’s running mate still appears a possibility. Be that as it may, what will historians say Hillary Clinton accomplished in a hard-fought race for the nomination?

She will go down in history as the first woman with the financial resources to run for president, said Kathryn Kish Sklar of the State University of New York at Binghamton. “What was new is she was a woman,” she said. That separates her from her predecessors.” She demonstrated, too, that she is a woman who can stand the heat of America’s grueling political process.

“She opened the door for other women. She made it easier for other women to run,” Sklar said. “We owe her a lot.”

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