Like the rally, Clinton's campaign initially looked a lot better for the movement than it turned out to be. Within days of her January 2007 announcement that she would make a run for the White House, her lieutenants Mark Penn and James Carville predicted that women would carry her over the threshold. In an appearance in Iowa early that same year, she reminded her audience that she was presenting herself as a woman and a mom. But as I wrote at the time in this newspaper, I had doubts. Though I came to recognize the feminist stake in Clinton's candidacy, in the beginning, the feminist in me wanted the first woman president to make it on her own, not with a big boost from her husband. And the Chicagoan in me looked at the precincts and didn't think that women would ultimately bring them in.
Nor did they. In the end, although Clinton won more women's votes overall than Barack Obama, the gap -- 9 percent across states with exit polls -- wasn't huge. African American women went for Obama by a five to one margin. Feminist activists split between the rival camps, exchanging manifestos. The Democratic women's vote splintered, and the candidate with the most male votes won.
So what keeps the movement from realizing its demographic potential? First, it's divided along lines so old that they feel like geological faults. Long before this campaign highlighted the divides of race, class and age, feminism was divided by race, class and age. As early as 1973, some black feminists formed a National Black Feminist Organization; in 1984, the writer Alice Walker coined the term "womanism" to distinguish black women's liberation from feminism, the white version. In the early 1970s, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich argued on behalf of "socialist feminism," saying that the women's movement couldn't succeed unless it attacked capitalism. The movement was barely out of its teens when Walker's daughter, Rebecca, announced a new wave to distinguish her generation's feminism from the already divided feminisms of the people who had spawned it.
This would have been enough to weaken the movement. But it still could have been like many other reform movements, which manage to remain effective by using such traditional political tools as alliances and compromises. There's an old-fashioned term for it -- "log-rolling." Put crudely: First I vote for your issue, then you vote for mine.
The mostly white, middle-class feminist organizations could have established relationships of mutual convenience with groups such as the black feminists. An alliance like that might have been able to prevent the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. White feminists opposed him, but he had enough support among black voters -- who are heavily female -- to induce four Southern Democratic senators who were heavily dependent on black votes for reelection to cast the crucial votes to confirm him.