Anna Quindlen: Sen. Obama, Attention Must Be Paid

Congrats, Senator Obama, from one of those middle-aged white women who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Everyone is suggesting you'd better pay close attention to us, especially since we're used to being chronically overlooked, and we're more than a little steamed about that fact. I agree completely, although not for the reasons you're hearing elsewhere.

You've run some race. The coalition of young voters and black Americans has been powerful and inspirational. The turnout among Democrats has put paid to the notion that no one cares about politics. And the estrogen alert that now says female Clinton supporters are going over en masse to John McCain out of pique, spite or rage is way overblown.

The idea that we will illustrate our disappointment by voting Republican is just another insulting suggestion that we're all emotional nut bars. Ever since the GOP sold out to the right wing, which sees women as a service industry for men, it has been no friend to us. This is the party that brought us Clarence Thomas even after Anita Hill testified; tried to neuter the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; held up approval of over-the-counter emergency contraception, and even put a guy on a commission for reproductive health who believes prayer is the way to deal with PMS. (Please, God, deliver him from the reach of my strong right hook.) Senator McCain himself opposes legal abortion and acknowledging the role of women in combat; progressive women's groups have long tagged him as weak on workplace bias and equal-pay guarantees. His likely Supreme Court appointees would mirror all that.

It would be silly for us to blame you for the cable blah-blahgers who were so negative about Senator Clinton. If she'd invented fire, they would have accused her of pyromania. You, by contrast, have been gracious in acknowledging her contributions as she bowed out. But you did have your moments. Along with your giving up cigarettes, may I suggest that you never again refer to a grown female reporter as "sweetie"?

After all, you know what it's like to be stereotyped. When you were accused during this campaign of being elitist—because good old egalitarian America isn't nearly as happy as one might hope when a black man gets a chance to go Ivy League—you could have responded, "Funny, that's not what cabdrivers who won't pick me up at night seem to think." You didn't do that, just as Senator Clinton didn't make much of the pitfalls of gender assumptions. Both of you understood the power-structure rules for the formerly disenfranchised. Push, and you're pushy. Demand, and you're demanding. No complaining allowed.

But here's the great thing about your position now: since you're obviously not female, you can openly complain on our behalf. You can channel your grandmothers, who had no opportunities, and your mother, who had few, and your wife, who because of the newest wave of feminism suddenly had many. You could even acknowledge the anger and frustration that women of a certain age, who have sat in the assistant's seat watching younger men promoted over them, felt when they saw what seemed to be the same thing happening to Senator Clinton.

We are the ones who wind up dealing with health care for our children and elder care for our parents. We are the ones fighting for sexual-harassment safeguards and workplace standards. Those are not issues on which John McCain has been passionate, and gender equity is not something with which he's ever been associated. This is an opportunity for you, not just an obligation.

Don't get comfy because older women are moving your way in new polls. And don't think you can coast on the fact that the Republicans are going to show their true colors by attacking your wife, thereby driving into the Democratic camp every woman enraged by the hands-folded, mouth-shut standard of female behavior. You've insisted you're running not to govern a demographic but to inspire a nation of individuals. Prove it. The real reason you have to reach out to women like us is that it will signal that you really mean to stand for a different America, a nation in which a black man can take up the concerns of white women for the sake of the greatest good.

Sometimes being an older woman at this moment in time can be a bit like one of those dreams in which you're running hard and yet not moving. On the one hand, we've come so far. On the other, there's always that fear of being dragged back to the bad old ways, in which the crust on our casseroles and the size of our breasts were how we were measured.

Most candidates who want the women's vote try to get it without ever really talking honestly about what it's like to be female in America. Instead there are cutesy labels: soccer moms, security moms, minimizing names for political Polly Pockets. Talk instead about equal pay, universal child care, reproductive rights, the women warriors in Iraq, the empty purses of the working class. This is a moment when you and yours will be tempted to run a race just like any other, slicing and dicing the country and then cherry-picking parts. Don't give in to the omnipresent fear of engaging in complexities. A man who can speak eloquently about all the ways in which women carry this country in their arms and all the ways government can help them do so would represent real change. For many American women, Hillary was their surrogate. You have a chance to be their champion. Don't blow it.