Four years ago, my college roommates and I saw Hillary Clinton speak. It was in Boston during the Democratic National Convention, and the four of us—all in our early 20s—swore that if she ever ran for president, we'd quit our jobs and work for her campaign. Speaking to an audience of all women, the former First Lady was poised but at ease, confident but lighthearted. She looked comfortable in front of all those women. Her strength was riveting. How quickly things change. Today, I'm a journalist (and no, I didn't quit my job to work for the Clinton campaign), Hillary is no longer the candidate of inspiration and each of those college friends—like nearly every other young person I know—has been sold on the Obama rock-star brand. Yet while the fear of betraying the "universal sisterhood" doesn't have the same impact for twentysomething women as it does for our second-wave feminist mothers, we remain conflicted about the candidate so many love to hate. She leaves many millennial women—however enthusiastically they vote Obama—with a lingering sense of guilt. "I voted for Obama and I felt like I was cheating on Hillary," a friend told me at dinner last week.
Perhaps this unease comes from being reared at a time when Hillary was ever present, a sort of surrogate mother to us all. I grew up watching her both lionized and vilified, from the moment she stepped foot in the White House. I entered womanhood in sync with Chelsea, who—as graceful as she may be now—was picked apart through every awkward stage of adolescence. And, as a self-conscious teen myself, I came to appreciate the way her mom tried to shield her from that spotlight.
Or perhaps the guilt stems from the fact that my generation of women is the most educated and accomplished to date; a recent Queens College study found that for the first time, urban twentysomething women are making more money than their male counterparts. We've never known a pre-Title IX world, and for all our lives we've been told that there isn't anything we can't do. For many of us, Hillary embodies that claim. If she did it—with the obstacles of her generation before her—surely we can, too, and we should be thankful for her efforts, no matter how we vote.
By all means, treat Hillary like a politician—she deserves it. But what she doesn't deserve is the incessant judgment of superficial traits that have no bearing on her fitness for the job. Her portrayal has become a caricature: bug-eyed, monstrous, ready to gobble us all up. She's criticized for being cold, calculating and presumptuous. But she steps onto the Senate floor with an iota of cleavage and the story is plastered across the Internet. She has a bad hair day and her makeup-caked face is magnified in high def for the world to pick apart. It's the reference to her "thick ankles" in Carl Bernstein's recent biography. It's the Chris Matthews pinch on the cheek and the muffled snickers at the acronym of Roger Stone's anti-Hillary 527, Citizens United Not Timid, that—were it racially charged—would be an abomination. It's John McCain's "Excellent question!" response to "How do we beat the bitch?"
I, too, can be guilty of perpetuating such stereotypes: I'll admit I laughed, and laughed hard, at a recent "South Park" episode about a terrorist plot to hide a bomb up Hillary's, uh, Oval Office. The spoof was funny, but I knew it wasn't fair—and I think most of us in the media recognize those contradictions. We saw some truth to Hillary's claim about bias. But we also recognized that claim as a well-crafted, well-timed play of the gender card that, looking back, had many of us eating out of her hand. Her subsequent wins won't end this race any sooner, but I have to admit, they will give me—and my old roommates—a tinge of womanly satisfaction.