Eighteen Million Cracks in the Presidential Glass Ceiling

A few days ago, standing front row, right, in a strangely barren room at a Boston hotel, I watched Hillary Clinton walk onto a stage with a rather lonely American flag, and again capture the admiration and imagination of every person in the audience. But this group was 80 of her closest New England supporters. Before and after our ovation for her, our voices were hushed. We all felt like we had walked into a wake.

I thought back a few weeks, watching my friend end her campaign. I was among millions of women who literally cried. No, not millions. Tens of millions. I've been working abroad a lot. Colombia to China, Lebanon to Liberia, Moldova to Mongolia, women have pulled me aside and insisted, "She must win -- for us."

Among the 18 million Americans who supported her presidential bid, none will be more important to a November win than women. So what's with us?

I've known Hillary since her husband's 1992 campaign. She obviously had the right stuff to be president, but few of us imagined she would take the plunge into politics. That year, our "Serious Issues, Serious Women, Serious Money" symposium in Denver became a template for women's engagement that has been replicated over the years, most recently by Hillary herself. She has brought women into the political process with an intensity not seen since the early 20th century, when women campaigned passionately for suffrage. For many, the Hillary Clinton candidacy called forth a similar passion.

The hurt many of us supporters now feel is understandable. What happened to our candidate is what countless women have experienced. We in the "sandwich generation" finally position ourselves for The Big Job after years of taking care of others (including the families of our men) only to have it given to someone else (the next generation's man).

That pain is real, and it's deep. But what is Hillary asking us to do in the face of this political, and personal, loss?

Focus on our broadest goal. Mine wasn't to get Hillary elected. In fact, hers wasn't to get herself elected. It was to create a more just nation. A more secure world. We both believed she was the best to deliver on that goal. She didn't win first prize, but meanwhile, she's moved women light years ahead. At the end of the primary season, polling indicated widespread acceptance of a woman as commander-in-chief. As Hillary noted in her magnificent concession address, how remarkable that previous barriers to women's presidential leadership became "unremarkable."

She may not be commander in chief, but she's asking her troops, in no uncertain terms, to get behind the Obama candidacy. It's time for serious conversations with ourselves, and with others, about What Really Matters Now. There were precious few differences between the two Democratic contenders; they lined up on women's rights and a host of other issues. We women who supported Hillary know that Barack Obama is brilliant, talented, and visionary, and that he carries our brief.

That's at a rational level. But at a gut level, we were long past ready for a new era of women's leadership. So we need a personal rigor to return to the issues, to recognize the clear choice that faces us in November. To stay home, or to vote for John McCain, is a betrayal of all we, and Hillary, have stood for these long months.

If we can't heal from this loss, how long will we be suffering from the damage of more Republican policies? So to my Hillary sisters, I say: campaigns are highly imperfect animals. Maybe they haven't found you, but the Obama supporters are doing a lot to reach across the divide. As of this writing, they've contributed well over half a million dollars to retire Hillary's debt, and I've been in one meeting after another in which we've been not only invited but warmly welcomed. Sure, sexism played a role in her loss, but that was not an Obama strategy. In fact, Hillary pointed out to our group (as Geraldine Ferraro said about her own vice presidential run) that there were also advantages to being a woman. The underlying question is, can we women, known for loyalty and steadfastness, switch our support without feeling as if we've betrayed our hero - and ourselves?

For many of us most closely drawn to Hillary, these conversations are exquisitely difficult. Her success would have been vindication of gender-based power struggles throughout our lives -- with fathers, bosses, brothers, colleagues. So with her loss we're wounded all over again.

Recrimination is a strong temptation, but it will be deadly, literally, to give into it. Instead, let's follow Hillary's lead. Forget the admonitions that we "move past," or "move on," or (oh, please) "just get over it." We're women, and we know how to deal with loss: Take it in and carry it forward inside of us. Then -- paradoxically -- we'll have the power to unify our party and win an election critical to our children's, our grandchildren's, and, yes, our own future.