Terry GolwayJuly 21, 2008

Not surprisingly, but regrettably all the same, some of Hillary Clinton’s disheartened supporters have dragged out the M word—misogyny—to explain her defeat in the historic Democratic primaries of 2008.

Feminists like Gloria Steinem and others charge that Senator Clinton was the victim of male supremacy in the ballot box and in the media. Clinton supporters put together a list of accused misogynists in the news media. Included on their roster of shame is Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times who certainly did not lack for withering comments about Clinton’s candidacy. Then again, Maureen Dowd does not lack for withering comments about anybody who holds public office, a fact that Clinton’s disappointed supporters have failed to recognize.

So it was surprising, indeed, to find the name of Maureen Dowd on a list of supposed anti-feminists who allegedly did in Clinton because of her gender. Perhaps just as surprising, although barely noticed, was the absence of one particular group from that list: Catholics.

Hillary Clinton’s most dependable supporters in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York were Catholic Democrats. In all three states, the senator won more than 60 percent of the Catholic vote. Those numbers were replicated in other states with substantial Catholic populations.

Let’s remember, now, that Catholics are not generally thought to be on the cutting edge of issues that feminist leaders deem important. Senator Clinton’s positions on a range of social and cultural questions, most obviously abortion, are hardly in keeping with those of the nation’s bishops. And yet she swamped Barack Obama in those states where Catholics make a big difference at the ballot box.

How to explain this turn of events? A cultural historian might well conclude that for white male Catholics, anxieties about race remain paramount, so much so that they are willing to empower a white woman rather than an African-American male.

You would have to have several initials after your name to believe such nonsense, but be assured that such theorizing has been and will continue to be carried out on campuses and in the nation’s smartest salons.

A more satisfactory theory, one that surely flies in the face of most Catholic stereotypes, was suggested by a member of the New York State Assembly, Catherine Nolan. In an interview with Jim Dwyer of The New York Times, Assemblywoman Nolan sought to explain Catholic support for Senator Clinton by recalling the prominent roles that women have played in the American church.

“Maybe we’re a little more open to female leadership,” said Nolan, who attended Catholic elementary school. “We had female role models from an early age. When I was growing up, all the Catholic school principals were women, and almost none of the public school principals were.” Nolan said she thought that Catholics were “used to female authority figures for much longer than other groups.”

For many cultural commentators, the Nolan theory will seem counterintuitive. But for those who actually know something about Catholicism, it makes perfect sense. The American church has been providing women with leadership opportunities for nearly two centuries. Scholars like Bernadette McCauley, Maureen Fitzgerald and others have shown how women religious founded and administered the church’s formidable network of social services, from schools to hospitals to orphanages to summer camps. Ultimately, many of these institutions reported back to the bishop, but in reality, they were run by women.

So, in fact, the notion of a woman in charge of the country requires less of an adjustment for Catholics than it might for other groups, as Nolan points out. But that’s not all. If the analysis of the Clinton supporters is correct—that their candidate was denied the nomination because of an anti-feminist, anti-woman backlash—then it follows that American Catholics, at least those registered with the Democratic Party, must be among the most ardent feminists in the land.

Or could it simply be that large numbers of Catholics looked at the records and rhetoric of the two main candidates and concluded that Senator Clinton was a better choice than Senator Obama, regardless of race or gender? In other words, isn’t it possible that the Obama-Clinton race was not about identity politics at all, but about which candidate ran the best campaign and offered the best solutions?

If Senator Clinton had lost to a generic white male, if she had run poorly in areas and among voting blocs where women still struggle for equality, her feminist supporters might have had a case. But the senator lost to an African-American male whose core supporters tended to be college-educated white-collar professionals—the stereotypical double-latte progressives on the Democratic Party’s left.

Are we to believe that they rejected Senator Clinton because of their Stone Age views of women?

Identity politics can be a dangerous business, as Democrats appear to be learning. Clinton supporters are having a hard time rallying around Obama because they believe his victory has been tainted.

What of Senator Clinton’s many Catholic supporters? If John McCain is smart, he’ll be making some inquiries about their availability. He could start by using the phrase “tuition tax credits.”

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John McShane
13 years ago
I'm uncertain that the 60% of votes was limited only to white Catholics, or that the basis for voting was that Hillary was better known entity than Obama or that the "Operation Chaos" of Republicans voting for Hillary biased the statistics. But one thing I am more certain of, is that placing the reasons on something as esoteric as Catholics being comfortable with women role models is 'reaching' just a bit. It is more likely that politics and hard scrabble positioning had more to do with results. And really, Obama had no position established that would lead a person to know his real platform - voters are uncomfortable with 'risk'.
Alan Miceli
13 years ago
My parents and aunt and a few other Catholic Democrats I know voted for Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary, not because of some Catholic sense that women can be leaders, too. (Although they had plenty of nice things to say about Hillary, and they also voted for her husband twice.) Their vote had more to do with the fact that Barack Obama is an African-American. They may sit out the general election rather than vote for him. It may be more consoling to believe that the Catholic vote for Hillary was some sort of validation of the prominent role that women in the American church have played, but the reality may be something quite different and a little bit on the ugly side.

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