I've been busy elsewhere most of the day so will just outsource my first round of thoughts on this to Dan Balz, whose movement from straight political reporter to political analyst has been one of the most underheralded journalistic developments of the campaign cycle, and whose very fine piece you can read here, and Greg Sargent, who has a great summary of today's back-and-forth here.
This conversation about Hillary Clinton and gender strikes me as just the latest of the campaign's "Deborah Tannen Moments," as I've come to think of them. Part of the reason it's getting so much attention is that part of the deal professional women often make in order to gain power is to not express their thoughts on the impact of gender on their lives in mixed company. It's considered both gauche and dangerous in professional circles to do so, and for good reason. There is real potential to create a male backlash by doing so, and I think if you look at what Clinton has herself said and what words others are now putting in her mouth, you'll get a nice example of how that all works.
That said, given that women, by and large, tend to have more close personal friends who are also women, and to occasionally socialize in all-female groups, there is a conversational reality here that needs to be understood. The primary political conversation that occurs in public is led by men, who still make up more than 80 percent of Congress, op-ed page writers, political talk-show guests, etc. But that doesn't mean women don't have any opinions or have nothing to say. What women have instead of a public conversation is what I've come to think of as "the secondary conversation" -- an ongoing conversation with other women, in private, where they feel they can speak freely about their lives and their place in the world without fear of being penalized or stigmatized for saying what they actually think. Clinton to date has been a master of dog-whistle politics in evoking the common tropes of that secondary conversation without making it too apparent or jarring to her male listeners.
Her competitors, however, have finally caught on. No surprise then, that her campaign's most recent attempt in that vein, having been identified for the rather obvious secondary conversation statement that it was, should seem jarring to both women adept in the art of deflecting attention from their difference and men used to pretending the whole gender-inequality problem has been solved. Clinton was walking a fine line when she tried to evoke sisterly sympathy for being the only woman on the stage (chatter like "ugh, me and 23 guys around the table -- again" is a huge part of the secondary conversation). I'm not sure that Clinton stepped over the line this time as much as she was shoved across it by her competitors, though, since they are now -- unsurprisingly, given her status as frontrunner -- scrutinizing and attacking her more assiduously, and working harder to frame interpretations of her actions.
For example, Barack Obama took on Clinton on television this morning for slipping into secondary conversation talk, something he himself almost never does, even though he's been offered plenty of opportunities to do so. And, to the extent that he avoids embedding himself within or evoking the common tropes of an African-American secondary conversation, it's actually part of his cross-racial appeal. The difference between Clinton and Obama, of course, when it comes to their respective secondary conversations, is that women are a political minority but also the majority of the electorate (and 62 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers), while African-Americans are a minority in the general election, and a tiny minority in Iowa (2 percent of caucus-goers). Thus the political benefits of bringing the female secondary conversation into the light are potentially large for Clinton, even if it's sometimes risky or backfires, while there would be almost no benefit to Obama, and a substantial risk of alienating white voters, if he did the same with the African-American one.
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