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Columbia Spectator Staff

View Gender and the Presidency: Student Reflections, an accompanying audio slideshow to this article.

American history professor and longtime feminist Alice Kessler-Harris is torn. As much as she eagerly awaits saying the title "Madame President" for the first time, she cannot decide how much she should allow the fact that Senator Hillary Clinton, a Democratic candidate, is a woman to impact her vote.

"I want a woman in the White House, and yet I want a woman who will speak to the issues I find important," she said.

Kessler-Harris' conundrum underlines the challenge facing Columbia and Barnard women at this historic juncture in American history: as they celebrate the first instance of a woman emerging as a viable candidate for president, they must decide how much—if at all—to factor Clinton's gender into their assessments of her candidacy.

While some say that the fact that Clinton is a woman clinches their vote for her, far more women report that they feel ambivalent both about voting for Clinton as a feminist statement and voting against her on the merits of her politics.

Madeleine Lloyd-Davies, BC '11, is unaffected by the fact that Clinton is female. But she says many of her peers are drawn to the senator by a feeling that Students for Hillary Clinton co-president Anna Durrett, BC '08, calls "women to women."

"I think that there are definitely women at Barnard who will vote for her because she's a woman," Lloyd-Davies said.

"A lot of people say it [gender] doesn't matter, but it's there," Gabrielle Sarpy, BC '11, said. "Even if we don't consider it an issue, it affects the way we think about her."

For some, this is not only inevitable, but good. Ruthie Fierberg, BC '10, said she tried to cast an objective eye on the election and see beyond the candidates' gender or race but along the way, she came to realize that candidates' superficial features can have profound impact. "It's not just the policies that matter, it's the historical milestones, the precedents we're setting," she said.

Durrett agrees. "I believe in her in so many ways as a politician, but it's also important to me that she's a woman," she said. "I'm not worried about saying that. How can we get there if there are no role models? That precedent would be so powerful."

But though many young women are encouraged by Clinton's candidacy, some are even more inspired by other candidates in ways that have nothing to do with gender.

"She's a fantastic candidate and I certainly think that her gender makes her a role model for girls interested in politics, but I choose candidates based on their positions on issues," Students for Barack Obama co-president Mary McDonald, CC '10, said.

Certainly, feminism is not synonymous with Clintonism. "There are plenty of people who say, 'I'd love a woman president, but if Hillary wins, I'm going to flee the country,'" Birdy Sahagian, BC '11, said.

The Clinton conundrum is complicated by the fact that hers is not the Democratic party's only historic candidacy, since her rival, Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the first nationally viable African-American candidate for president.

According to Kessler-Harris, there is a sense of pressure among feminists to vote for the woman, because getting a female into the Oval Office is a goal that the movement has been working toward for 40 years. "I'm sympathetic to that," she said, "But race is also something that I'm sympathetic to."

Some women are also riled into solidarity when sexism rears its ugly head in the media or on the campaign trail, as many felt was the case when MSNBC host Chris Matthews pinched Clinton's cheek after a January interview.

"Those are the moments that make me want to vote for her," Kessler-Harris said, shuddering. "The instinct is to rally around Hillary, to say, 'Why are we still letting this happen after all these years?'"

But not all female response is supportive. "I tend to see women actually being harsher on women than men are," Durrett said.

"I compare her to the version of feminism that I want her to uphold," Kessler-Harris explained. "If I were to measure Hillary Clinton in terms of the aims of a more community-oriented social feminism of the 1970s, she falls short."

Should Clinton win the title of commander in chief, she will also be thrust into the role of "First Feminist"—a part for which the script has yet to be drafted.

"If I were elected president, I would acknowledge that I was the first," Productive Outreach for Women co-president Irene Han, CC '08, said. "I think that she would have to recognize that feminism had played a part in getting her where she is."

Others hope for a shift in policy emphasis, such as increased sensitivity to certain female-oriented issues. Durrett cited health insurance and child care as examples.

Most agree, however, that the presidency itself should supersede any gender loyalties. "She has a lot of national and international issues to address before she gets to anything gender-specific," Fierberg said. "A lot of change is going to happen no matter who's elected."

Elections 2008 Elections Hillary Clinton Feminism