Meet the Smart New York Women Who Can’t Stand Hillary Clinton

Forty-nine-year-old writer Fran Lebowitz was perturbed about Hillary Clinton’s all-but-certain Senate run. She had already made up her mind to vote for Mrs. Clinton but, she said, she was still unhappy. “I feel it’s a personal plot,” she said. “I feel like she personally sat down and said, ‘How could I possibly get Fran Lebowitz to vote for me? I have to run against Giuliani.’”

Ms. Lebowitz wasn’t finished. “I think she’s a very poor role model for girls,” she said. “I believe she’s someone who decided at a young age that ‘I want to be President, but I can’t, because I’m a girl. So I’ll marry the President.’ I think that’s so regressive.” She paused for breath. “She’s a poll-taker, she’s a pulse-taker, she’s not a leader. She doesn’t really seem to have any ideas … And then she comes here and panders.”

A little less than a year after she began her heavy flirtation with the 2000 Senate race, in which she’ll likely face Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mrs. Clinton, 52, is suffering from a lack of support among those who should be her voting base–white women, many of them professionals and from her own generation. If you don’t believe it, look at the Jan. 11 Marist Poll of New York State voters, in which Mr. Giuliani swept the white female vote, claiming 52 percent to Mrs. Clinton’s 35 percent. For the Hillary camp, that was worse news than a Dec. 16 Quinnipiac College Poll in which Mr. Giuliani claimed 47 percent of female white voters and Mrs. Clinton took 40 percent.

“It started in October!” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute. “We had missed it, because we didn’t subdivide. And when we did it, we took the women. I’ll be goddamned! Because she always won among women, a little bit, in each case. [But] you took black women out, and what was a narrow lead for her among women turned into a narrow lead for him among white women!”

“A year ago January, she was running much better among women,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Clearly, women are part of the fallout. In January of last year, she was beating Giuliani among Democratic women.”

For a state with a deeply liberal reputation, New York has always been a tough nut to crack for women: Despite a long history of women in power–from Belle Moskowitz to Frances Perkins to Bella Abzug–none has ever been elected to statewide office here. The last significant female candidate, Ruth Messinger, received just 45 percent of female votes against Mayor Giuliani in 1997, according to the Marist Institute. (Even among Democratic women, Ms. Messinger received just 58 percent.) New York City has three female members of Congress; 11 men.

“New York’s a pretty progressive state,” said Mr. Carroll, “a tolerant place, with no real bars to women … except that the record says, they don’t get elected in New York!”

“I haven’t been to a dinner party recently where there hasn’t been a Giuliani-Hillary Senate vote,” said Ellen Levine, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping . “And what’s interesting about the votes is that the women are not united, and you’d expect them to be.”

Some New York City women seem to be developing a grudge against Mrs. Clinton as a representative of their sex. Those interviewed who said they won’t support her–or who have real doubts about voting for her–said it’s not so much about her politics, but rather Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate and health care reform. And the women interviewed seem to have dismissed the Lewinsky scandal as a factor in their view of Mrs. Clinton. Some said they couldn’t relate to her on a personal level and didn’t respect her as a woman, a drawback for a new girl in town full of barrier-smashing, high-voltage professionals, some of whom may hold their female peers up to a much loftier standard than they would their male ones.

Their resentment is an irritation with her persona, her tactics–what Dr. Patricia Allen, a 52-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist affiliated with New York Presbyterian Hospital, described as “unattractive, narcissistic tendencies” that she sees in the First Lady. “I wanted to like Mrs. Clinton, because she comes from a modest, Midwestern background, as I do. She worked hard for her education and her power. But, you know, I’m ashamed of her,” Dr. Allen said.

“The big difference is that I always went after what I wanted for me. I never lived my life through a man. I never sought to achieve power or professional aspirations through alliance with a powerful man. I always believed that I could make it happen, simply by doing what I was taught to do as a child: to get up in the morning, and do your work, and be a person whose word can be believed.”

Some of the tension seemed to arise only after Mrs. Clinton’s transformation from an idealistic policy wonk in a royal blue suit to a poll-taking, listening, touring candidate surrounded by a thick cadre of campaign advisers. And to many women, the change has made her seem even more inaccessible.

Alexandra Brodsky, a filmmaker in her late 20′s, was remembering her first encounter with the First Lady: a 1992 speech, given on the New Haven green at Yale University on the eve of Bill Clinton’s first Presidential race. “I was so moved,” said Ms. Brodsky. “I really felt like she was so intelligent, and she really was earnest, and had an agenda that I really respected. And I guess I feel now–and it’s not even so much the scandal in the White House–she’s been so calculated in terms of her candidacy. And every sort of statement she makes, I feel, is designed for her own political advancement. And that really is distressing to me–I don’t fully trust her. It’s just she’s done this crazy 180.”

“I’ve heard it since I first starting writing about Hillary in 1992,” said writer Gail Sheehy, whose biography of the First Lady, Hillary’s Choice , was recently published. “The first reaction I got from, shall we say, somebody in the editorial area, was: ‘I can’t stand her. She’s too effing perfect … The women one would expect to be out there, competing to give teas for her and petitioning and making phones ring off the hook are often those most viscerally offended by her. I’m talking about liberal Democratic educated or professional women. And particularly those over 45.”

“I almost feel she’s underestimating New Yorkers by not jumping on real topics more,” said a 24-year-old magazine writer. “Like she sort of thinks we won’t notice. I have a lot of friends that feel the same way–waiting for her to have some sort of opinion, so we can know how to feel about her and the rest of the candidates.”

“This idea of the fact that she’s not from here really isn’t a factor? It is! It is a factor,” said Marcia Ann Gillespie, the 55-year-old editor of Ms. magazine. “If you want to represent us, then you need to become a lot smarter about who you are. And right now she’s been off to a real slow start. There’s a certain kind of resentment that, No, you can’t take my vote for granted, just because I’m female.”

Other women have had a bone to pick with Mrs. Clinton since her husband entered the Oval Office seven years ago. Take Brooke Hayward Duchin, the 62-year-old writer and wife of society band leader Peter Duchin. “I don’t think she handled many of her public chores terribly well,” she sighed. “I don’t think the Travelgate thing was effective … and for some reason I feel she’s unethical.”

A 29-year-old television journalist agreed: “I haven’t been pleased with how she handled herself as the First Lady,” she said. “I don’t feel like she clearly picked one or two issues [that] she could have made a difference on. I feel like she was all over the map.”

“I always keep coming back to It Takes a Village ,” said Tama Janowitz, novelist and mother, who described herself as being “more than 30 years old.” “Which just irritates me beyond belief. What the hell is she talking about? ‘It takes a village’ … It’s like some Midwest kind of lovely thing, this lovely sentiment. It takes a village, and then meanwhile, there is no village! It’s New York City! We’re trying to get through the day without getting shot!”

Still especially raw in New York is the image Mrs. Clinton created of herself during her foray into health care. “When Hillary was given the mandate to reform and help health care and make it better, she bombed,” said Barbara Greenberg, a fund-raiser for Beth Israel Medical Center who is in her late 50′s and the wife of Dr. Henry Greenberg, director of the coronary unit at Roosevelt Hospital. “And people fail at things. It’s not that. What bothers my husband and me is that she seemed to demonize all doctors, and surround herself … with people who were peripherally involved in health care, but not doctors. She’s such a bright, caring women, so why did she do this? Which makes me wonder about her, and choices she’ll make in the future on other issues I certainly care about.”

“I can’t look at her without seeing her through a veil of half-truths, obfuscation,” said Dr. Allen. “I feel strongly that she believes that she cannot be wrong and she believes she knows all the answers. [And] I started to feel that way when she decided to single-handedly overhaul the health care system.”

Ms. Sheehy said she was unsurprised by these feelings from New York women. “Beginning back when they had to go in the side door of the Harvard Club, the whole idea was supposed to be that you didn’t ride on a man’s coattails,” she said. “Or if you did, you know, you let go once they became soiled. And so I think it seems to be pretty prevalent among women, let’s say, over 45, who feel that the way Hillary has made her way to the top of public life reflects badly on them.”

Judith Shapiro, 57, president of Barnard College, disagrees. “I think women are always judged more harshly on things than men are,” she said. “So I think to the extent that she might come across as too calculating, or too slick, she’s likely to be judged more harshly than a man would for having those qualities.”

According to Mr. Carroll of Quinnipiac, Mrs. Clinton could be in trouble without the support of white women, who have voted for the victor in every statewide election during the last decade, according to Mr. Carroll. “That doesn’t mean that [Mr. Giuliani's] going to continue to lead among women. Not by a goddamn long shot! But! At the moment–and I’m convinced, and partly this is intuition and analysis, and partly it’s people I’ve talked to–it’s professional women, women who have made their own careers, that realized that [Mrs. Clinton's] candidacy starts with being First Lady. And there’s some–I’m convinced!–some resentment in there. That, you know, well, she’s starting at the top because she’s married to the guy!”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton may still find her hard-nosed adversary becoming her best ally. Said City Council member Ronnie Eldridge, 68, a Democrat: “I didn’t think she was the strongest candidate, but she seems to be the only candidate. So I’m supporting her. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”