Mary Dejevsky: So, when will a woman be elected president?

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The first turning-point of this year's switchback campaign for the Democratic Party nomination was surely the moment when Hillary Clinton came close to tears on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. In a matter of seconds, she transformed herself in voters' perceptions from steely candidate to fragile female. According to the pollsters at the time, it delivered for her the women's vote that she had lost to Barack Obama in Iowa.

What was largely lost, both at the time and subsequently, was the actual question that had precipitated Mrs Clinton's show of emotion. "How," she had been asked by a woman of a very similar age, "do you keep so upbeat and so wonderful?" To which Mrs Clinton had replied: "It's not easy, and I could not do it if I just didn't passionately believe it was the right thing to do. This is very personal for me. It's not just political. It's not just public."

This exchange revealed at least as much about the Clinton campaign than any tear. It showed the degree of empathy for Hillary Clinton among women of her generation, just above and just below. You could see this from her public meetings. When Mrs Clinton's campaign was on a downturn, it was women of a certain age who stood by her and willed her on. If this campaign was personal for Mrs Clinton, it was personal for them, too.

Hillary's is the generation that reaped some of the benefits that the early feminists had fought for. Mrs Clinton recognised this: one of her first campaign trips, as would-be senator for New York, was to Seneca Falls in up-state New York which is regarded as the "cradle" of America's women's rights movement. The turnout for that visit was much higher than her team had anticipated – and the event was not even well publicised.

The compromises that Hillary Clinton made, willingly or not, and the early battles that she fought were compromises that were familiar to them. Her decision, as top of her year at Yale Law School, to follow her man to the provincial state of Arkansas, rather than pursuing a high-flying career as a Manhattan lawyer, was one of them.

Another was the grief she was given about her decision to keep her maiden name for professional purposes. She did her best to combine motherhood and her career, in a southern state where women then were expected to stay at home and hold tea-parties. She stuck by a wayward husband. The attention to her appearance when she became first lady and the difficulties she faced, as a woman with her own mind, in the White House mirrored the difficulties of a whole generation.

This core of Hillary supporters will, American pollsters say, be especially difficult for Barack Obama to win over. They may choose to abstain, or vote for John McCain, rather than support the man who narrowly beat the woman who had the best chance anyone has ever had of being the first female president. Becoming Obama's running mate could make matters worse, as it would confirm their fears – and, in many cases, their experience – that a woman is acceptable in a subordinate role, but not commander-in-chief.

It would be wrong to see this support for Hillary as uncritical support for a woman over a man. It stems to a large part from the belief that if Mrs Clinton – with all her money-raising capacity, extended network of contacts, and political experience (in the Senate as much as in the White House) – cannot win the nomination, then the prospects for a woman to become president are remote. Nancy Pellosi, the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, is 68. There are no senators or congresswomen today who come close to Mrs Clinton's combination of prominence and expertise. State governor might be a more realistic launch-pad for a woman presidential candidate, but fundraising without a Washington network would not be easy.

By showing that a woman can make a convincing campaigner at the presidential level, Mrs Clinton may have smoothed the path for a woman to win the nomination in the future. But if anyone is likely to benefit, it will be the daughters of the Hillary generation, who have watched their mothers' double disappointment.

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