Women rally round for Hillary's toughest fight

If Hillary Clinton does well enough in tomorrow's key primary races in Texas and Ohio to keep fighting for the Democratic presidential nomination, it will almost certainly be because of a late surge in sympathy from her most obvious constituency: women voters.

For all the nastiness of the campaign – much of it from her camp – an unmistakable perception has begun to emerge that the political establishment and the media have begun to turn on Mrs Clinton largely because she is a woman.

Nobody knows how that perception might affect voting. The latest opinion polls have her behind Barack Obama in Texas and only narrowly ahead in Ohio. Such a result would all but kill off her chances. But the perceived anti-woman bias is firing up Senator Clinton's volunteers in Texas even with women who don't particularly like her as a candidate.

"You should hear the way men in this state talk about women," said Gloria Black, a volunteer at the Clinton office in Austin who has campaigned for decades on health care and children's rights, issues close to the former First Lady's heart. "It's 'bitch this', and 'bitch that'. That's the attitude we're fighting."

The woman issue resurfaced most recently in last week's candidates' debate in Cleveland, when Mrs Clinton was challenged by the two male moderators about some of her sharper campaign rhetoric. The moderators were arguably just as tough on Senator Obama when they asked him about an endorsement from the divisive black Muslim leader, Louis Farrakhan, but many women felt the toughness was lopsided in Mr Obama's favour.

"Perversely I think she becomes more appealing to women... when I sense the men ganging up on her," said Carol Coote, a Californian who originally supported John Edwards. Ms Coote said she was struck by Senator Obama's thin record of legislative achievements compared with Mrs Clinton's.

"He's been lazy about his work in Congress – but he had a campaign to run," she said. "Well, so did she! Hello! Do girls always work harder and get less reward?"

The hard-work argument is likely to play well in a state such as Ohio, with its no-nonsense Protestant ethic. Texas, meanwhile, has a long history of strong, feisty women in political leadership, such as Ann Richards, the irrepressibly witty governor who preceded George W Bush, and Barbara Jordan, who in 1972 became the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives.

In Texas, according to Peggy Iheme, a Clinton-supporting former school teacher, politics is not just a male topic of conversation. "It's not that we're disinterested in cookies and babies," she said, "but it's not what we talk about in our kitchens."

Across the state, Clinton supporters have been unafraid to voice their opinions or to write them on their T-shirts. "Well-behaved women rarely make history," read one, sported by a retired state representative from south Texas. "Yo soy tu chica [I'm your gal]," read another, from a Latina supporter.

Ms Black, the volunteer in Austin, said she was going against many of her Obama-supporting friends and relatives. But, to her, there was no choice.

"Hillary can do it all – in heels, walking backwards and without a penis," she said, laughing. "I've been on this train a long time, and I ain't hopping off until it reaches the end of the line."