My Mother's Painful Quandary

My mother, now 80, should be in clover this political year. She met Hillary Clinton in the early 1990s, and the then First Lady championed a tutoring program in Chicago housing projects that Mom cofounded. She met Barack Obama a few years later and was so taken with him that she and my father hosted a fund-raiser for his 2004 Senate campaign. But what should have been a bounty of political riches has instead become an "excruciatingly painful" choice, as I learned when I interviewed her recently. My mother, facing the other pains of age, often finds herself favoring Clinton in the daytime and Obama in the middle of the night (even at 3 a.m.!), then vice versa.

Joanne Alter's dilemma is bound up in her own history in the women's movement and in the brutal world of Chicago politics. But it's also representative of the conflicting feelings experienced by some of the older women who make up Hillary's most committed base. In that sense, she's a Democratic Everymom.

This year I've run into lots of people who say that Hillary Clinton reminds them of their mother, and they mean it as a compliment. The world is full of can-do women who ran their complicated households and also did the grunt work in every local civic organization, but got little, if any, credit for it. In the workplace, these pioneers faced patronizing and abusive behavior that today's young women wouldn't tolerate for a nanosecond. One of the big questions this year for Democrats is how much this legacy of sexism should shape their choice.

My mother appreciates Hillary's toughness because she's been there. After taking my grandmother's advice to avoid secretarial school ("You'll be stuck behind a typewriter for life"), she juggled raising a family with hyperactive nonprofit and political work. In 1972, she went to see the legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and told him that it was the 20th century and he should finally allow women to run for office. Boss Daley thought Mom was a pushy critic, but he was a clever politician. So he put her on the Democratic ticket (primaries being a mere formality in Illinois in those days) for commissioner of the Sanitary District, responsible for sewage. She campaigned as an early environmentalist (we had private joke posters printed up saying: WHEN YOU FLUSH, THINK OF ME) and, despite running for a minor office, led the ticket that year with more than a million votes, becoming the first woman Democrat ever elected in Cook County.

I've always thought of my mother as the Jackie Robinson of Chicago's gender politics. For many of her 18 years in public office, other politicians often treated her the way many white players treated Robinson when he integrated Major League Baseball. Her cutthroat colleagues routinely ignored or insulted her, with another commissioner in the mid-1970s even calling her "one of those brainless, braless, broads," though that was mild compared with what they said behind her back. "They couldn't deal with a 'girl from the kitchen' making big-budget decisions," she recalls, noting that pathbreaking women engineers and lawyers she knows faced similar derision. When she was praised by the Chicago newspapers for saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, the often–corrupt hacks tried, and failed, to stop her re-election. All the while, as one of the early women members of the Democratic National Committee, my mother was engrossed in advancing the cause of women in politics. When I was growing up, our dining room was mostly a meeting room for aspiring women politicians from Illinois and beyond.

So it's no surprise that my mother, like so many other older women I've met, wants to live long enough to see the first woman president. She greatly admires Hillary and thinks her campaign will yield long-term benefits. "Politicians like [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi will be taken much more seriously because of her candidacy," she says, adding that the "boys' club" is weakening, though not fast enough for her taste. Younger women, she says with a sigh, "don't understand, because they didn't have to fight the battles we did."

But when it came time to vote in the Illinois primary on Super Tuesday, my mother was in a quandary. She didn't like the sexist comments about Hillary ("Iron my shirts," chanted a couple of imbecilic hecklers in New Hampshire, thereby helping her win there). But she was also upset that Obama has been depicted as connected to Louis Farrakhan, unaccomplished in the Senate and full of empty rhetoric. These charges, she says, are "ridiculous." For years she watched him work with great skill to bridge barriers of race, class, religion and party in Illinois. The choice was beginning to jangle her nerves.

When my two sisters became active Obama volunteers and her granddaughters as well as grandsons grew excited about politics for the first time, my mother began to think about the contest in a new way. The next president was for them, not her, she reasoned. Slowly, idealism edged identity. Her sense that Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate took a fragile hold over the cause of women in politics to which she had devoted so much of her career. She voted for Obama, and knows she might not live to see the first woman president. Joanne Alter can live with that, even if she still often tosses and turns over it at 3 in the morning.

My Mother's Painful Quandary | U.S.