ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — Deb Dieter worked hard for liberal antiwar crusader Gene McCarthy 40 years ago. "I did the noble, idealistic thing," she recalled with a chuckle.
Now she's 59, and when she hears Barack Obama talk passionately about hope and ideals, her face clouds with a world-weary look and she scoffs.
"I like both candidates, but Obama hasn't been around enough. Hillary Clinton is smart and she's capable," Dieter said.
She's sticking with Clinton. She's one of a huge corps of women over 50 who consider the New York senator their champion, the candidate they've waited for all their lives.
They know Clinton isn't perfect — many are quite willing to criticize her positions and her campaign strategy — but they remain unwavering supporters.
The reason is simple, said Cathy Brown, 61: "Because she understands."
"A lot of women see Hillary Clinton and they understand her struggle," explained Susan J. Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey.
The daughter of a small-business owner and a Sunday-school teacher, Clinton grew up in a comfortable house in suburban Chicago, went to Girl Scout camp and became active in her church. Although she was a graduate of Wellesley, a prestigious women's college, and Yale Law School, she still had to battle gender barriers and fight for acceptance, first as a lawyer, later as a politician. Many women of her generation identify with her.
Obama tries hard to crack that support group — his wife, Michelle, spent time Thursday talking to women at a Zanesville day nursery, for instance — but as Clinton fights for political survival, women over 50 remain the one bloc that stands by her.
They cite lots of reasons.
They appreciate that Clinton followed what she was told were the rules of how to run for president, only to find that still may not be enough.
"She was told you need experience, toughness and the ability to raise money, and yet the system changed the rules again," said Joan McLean, a top adviser to Geraldine Ferraro in her 1984 vice presidential run and a professor of political science at Ohio Wesleyan University.
This over-50 female crowd tends to see government as an important safety net, a friend as they confronted discrimination through the years.
"I was passed over on a promotion due to gender," recalled Kathy Garrison, 57. Now she's a St. Clairsville elementary school teacher. Clinton's candidacy, she said, "is such a historic moment for women my age."
Sharon Wineman, 60, a Cambridge housewife, saw a friend lose a job two years before qualifying for a pension. She thinks that Clinton would make sure that unions are strong enough to prevent such outrages.
Clinton, they said, not only understands such problems but also has an innate appreciation of how government can help. The women recall how anti-discrimination laws were vigorously enforced during Bill Clinton's administration, and that he named the first female attorney general and secretary of state and put a woman on the Supreme Court.
Hillary Clinton has been working this constituency hard; her campaign staff has made the campaign a kind of women's crusade.
Last year she set up a network of 100 top female supporters, who then were asked to contact 100 of their friends. They would send "Hillgrams" about issues of special concern to women, such as unsafe toys, help for military spouses and health care. They formed groups such as Women Lawyers of America for Hillary, Nurses for Hillary and Moms for Hillary.
One problem, though, is that these women haven't always passed on this passion to their daughters. Women under 50 came of age in an era when successful women weren't uncommon in the workplace, when credit laws had been adjusted and powerful role models were easier to find.
The fight for gender equality seems irrelevant today, said Crystal Pietranton, 28, a St. Clairsville registered nurse. Asked whether she's encountered gender discrimination in the workplace, social worker Amy Smith, 32, of St. Clairsville, flatly said "no."
Their generation has so many female role models that these younger women often don't feel compelled to back Clinton to make a statement about gender.
"She has the right ideas, but I'm not sure she would be as aggressive as she needs to be," said Lori Coleman, 42, a St. Clairsville housewife.
This generation gap shows few signs of closing, but even if Clinton loses, her army of over-50 women is still likely to march behind her as she faces her future.
Eleanor Gaynor, 71, a Belair secretary, explained why: "Hillary Clinton makes you feel proud."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008