Clinton’s youngest supporters see glass half full

NEW YORK – For all the older supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton who may have been depressed, deflated, wistful or angry about her exit from the presidential race, there’s an upbeat 17-year-old who doesn’t feel the dream of a woman in the Oval Office has slipped away.

Quite the contrary.

“I look at it as a glass half-full,” says Bethanie Livernois of Coppell, Texas, at 17 just one agonizing year too young to vote. “This is somebody who could be shaping the way for me. The fact that she came this far shows me that definitely, in my lifetime, I’m going to see a female president.”

This young Clinton fan, already contemplating a career in politics, seems to be taking some of the candidate’s own words to heart: She’s looking at that glass ceiling, not totally shattered but almost, and seeing 18 million new cracks, one for each of Clinton’s hard-won votes.

Polls taken during the grueling primary season showed a clear generational trend among female Democratic voters: The older the voter, the more likely she was to have backed Clinton.

Now, with Barack Obama the victor, many of the New York senator’s female supporters are deeply frustrated, and wondering when the chance to elect a woman president will arise again. Their frustration is compounded by a sense that sexism and misogyny tinged the campaign, especially in media coverage.

It’s harder to gauge the feelings of the too-young-to-vote set, as pollsters don’t reach out to them. But teachers who have been listening to them in the classroom all year say their female students haven’t experienced overt gender discrimination in their lives, and thus didn’t see Clinton’s historic quest through that prism. Indeed, the word “historic,” so ubiquitous in coverage of this race, comes up rarely in these conversations.

“These kids are growing up differently than in the past. They don’t have a view of limitations on women,” says Michael Yell, a middle school teacher in Hudson, Wis. “I just don’t think gender bias is on their radar at this age. But racial bias is, so that’s one of the appeals of Barack Obama.”

There’s no question that across the country, Obama’s youthful persona and message of change have captivated huge numbers of young students, more than Clinton or the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain. “My kids say Obama’s younger, full of new and fresh ideas,” says Sandy Gonnerman, a seventh-grade teacher in Lakeside, Calif., near San Diego.

She took a straw poll in her class of mostly 12-year-olds recently and was astonished at the unanimity. No one picked McCain, even though the area is conservative politically. As for Clinton, “a couple of hands went up but then down quickly, as they realized it wasn’t going to be a popular choice.”

But while the idea of the first female president didn’t outwardly inspire the girls, they did jump in to defend the candidate when a few boys piped up to say, “She’s a woman, how can she know what she’s doing?” Gonnerman notes: “A couple of my feisty girls went after them.”

In Charleston, S.C., Melissa Walker, who teaches history and civics, was amazed at how involved her ninth and tenth-graders were in class political discussions, “and I’m not a teacher who’s amazed very often.”

Of course, Obama won the South Carolina primary, and many of Walker’s students – about 65 percent of the school is black – felt a deep sense of involvement and pride. As for Clinton, she says, “I don’t think she resonated as much with them. It breaks down by generational lines. They see women doing everything now. They don’t know about Shirley Chisholm” – the late black congresswoman who ran for president in 1972 – “or about Geraldine Ferraro. They don’t even know about the 2000 election. I have to teach them.”

Walker herself, who supported Clinton at one point but will be an alternate delegate for Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, recently met with a little resistance from her 6-year-old daughter, who whispered to her: “Mom, you can vote for the girl. I won’t tell anybody!”

In Milwaukee, social studies teacher Michael Koren finds that his middle school students also identify strongly with Obama’s youthful aura and buy into his theme of change. In conversations about Clinton, he says, he hasn’t heard disappointment that a woman’s quest failed.

“Quite the opposite,” Koren says. “They see the glass ceiling is breaking. It was very close this time, and it almost happened. It will happen soon.”

Such a glass-half-full approach resonates with Joanna Saltz, executive editor of Seventeen magazine, who says her readers – mostly girls between 16 and 18 – have shown real excitement about the entire election process. The magazine’s May issue exhorted readers to be politically involved, and editors got an enthusiastic response when they posted an election poll on their Web site asking which issues were most important. (Top concerns: the environment and the Iraq war.)

The young girls of today, looking ahead to voting in a few years, are really inspired by the idea of change in all its aspects, Saltz says. “It’s a win-win situation,” Saltz says of the race just concluded between Clinton and Obama. “I don’t think these girls see Hillary Clinton’s not getting the nomination as a defeat. This is still amazing. It’s still an incredible leap forward.”

Or, to use the youthful words of Livernois, the Texas teenager who wishes she were old enough to vote: “Hillary Clinton set the bar, saying, ‘This is what you can live up to.’ She was first. She paved the way.”

And that, pronounces Livernois, is “really neat.”