The Change Candidate Needs to Change His Tone Towards Women

The first time Hillary Clinton ran a television ad complaining about Barack Obama's unwillingess to debate in Wisconsin, he fired back with an ad of his own about the 18 debates he's already participated in and the two more that are scheduled.

She wouldn't let it go; her subsequent ad speculated on whether he was reluctant because his health insurance care plan wasn't as good as hers.

At a televised campaign stop, someone asked him how he felt about the ad campaign. Obama, grave-faced and sympathetic in tone, opined that when Senator Clinton was 'feeling down,' she went on the attack to make herself feel better; that is, she committed an error in judgment because she was in a bad mood. That was the moment when I, and other women of a certain age, all over the country, winced.

The change candidate had embraced one of the oldest clichés in the book -- that women are held hostage by emotion, that we can't be trusted with the big decisions because, depending on our age, we're either on the rag or having a hot flash. The overtly sexist position used to be that you didn't want to entrust the red phone to a woman because women are unpredictable and irrational; a fit of hormonal pique and kaboom, we all glow in the radioactive dark. The ones who aren't instantly vaporized, that is.

The kinder, gentler version? A soft-spoken observation about what a female candidate does when she's "feeling down," the implication being that Hillary's distress over the delegate count had impaired her judgment, and that someone who loses her way like that is not strong enough to withstand the rigors of the presidency. If you think that I and the indignant gal friends I've polled are overreacting, try the acid test: Imagine any major candidate making that kind of subtle put-down about a man's psychological fortitude. In 1972, Thomas Eagleton had to have shock treatment to get us to raise a national eyebrow about his mental health, ending his brief tenure as George McGovern's running mate. Short of that, we tend to assume that the boys are steady enough to handle the job.

The interesting question is where the inspiration for the dig came from. If it was truly an off-the-cuff remark, then it's just gender-role business as usual, and the French, sadly, are right: The more things change, the more they remain the same. This might help to explain why women stick to Hillary; any woman who grew up in the transitional generation between Betty Crocker moms and Betty Friedan daughters has a special antenna for this kind of slight. We've heard it before, we know we're going to hear it again, and we'd just as soon hang with a smart girl who gets it, for all her flaws. As for the more highly educated women who poll for Obama, let's see how they feel when they find out he would think better of them if they were guys.

If it wasn't a spontaneous comment -- if someone in Senator Obama's camp thinks it's wise to use code to address and exploit our primitive fears about whether women can cope -- then whoever came up with it ought to be ashamed of himself, and the man who uttered it needs to rethink the strength of his opponent and her supporters. Beat her on better ideas, or oratory, beat her with passion and energy, but beat her fair and square, if you can. Don't talk about change and then quote from a 1950s playbook on the battle between the sexes.