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Why Women Still Support Clinton

Despite allegations of marital infidelity, many women are not rushing to judgment.

'I don't care about his personal life!" asserts Caroline Kenner, her voice as flaming as her red hair. "Clinton's a good president ... that's what matters."

This Silver Spring, Md., woman is not alone - especially among women - in her opinion of President Clinton, who faces allegations of sexual indiscretion and suborning perjury.

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Polls show women have either a higher opinion of Mr. Clinton than men do, or at least are equal in their job-approval assessments, despite reports about inappropriate treatment of women and years of stories about marital infidelities.

What's going on here? Clinton has long enjoyed higher approval ratings among women and wouldn't be president today if it weren't for women. If only men had voted in 1996, Bob Dole would be in the White House.

Now, of course, some female supporters of Clinton are saying: enough. "I've had it," says a woman government official, who declines to be named. "This guy's a misogynist."

But for now, many women are giving the president the benefit of the doubt, though this picture could change as the public continues to form its views.

"Women are slower to come to judgment," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute. "They don't see change as rapidly as men do."

Ms. Bowman also cautions against reading too much into the polls, because with so many charges bandied about, it's difficult to know exactly what people are reacting to.

But Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), says women are being cautious. "Perhaps because Clinton's emphasis, especially in the last election, was on issues that resonate with women voters," their support is tougher to shake, says Ms. Ireland. "They are perhaps disquieted and uncomfortable, but they're waiting to hear the evidence."

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NOW and other women's groups have come under fire for not being more critical of the president over his female troubles, including the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit, while firmly siding against conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon when they faced harassment charges.

Gender or politics

The answer, say conservatives, is pure partisanship. "When you get down to an issue like this, it isn't women vs. men, it's a political issue," says Anita Blair, executive vice president of the Independent Women's Forum, a moderately conservative group based in Arlington, Va.

Ireland rejects this argument, noting that she's been arrested while protesting Clinton policies. Interns at NOW were planning to release yesterday a pledge for public officials to sign, promising they won't have sexual relations with interns or staff. This indicates NOW is responsive to an issue uppermost in public discourse, says Ireland.

Though NOW doesn't speak for Clinton's women supporters, a turn by the organization and others like it against the president could deal a fatal blow to his authority. "If women's attitudes begin to collapse, then he really is in peril," says Republican pollster Linda Divall.

Ms. Blair notes that some women's own attraction to the president may also help explain some of his residual support, and that, in general, men and women bring their own life experiences to their judgments about events. It could be, she says, that men look at the kind of behavior Clinton allegedly engaged in and think, "What a dope, it's so easy to avoid a situation like that."

Women on Lewinsky

Women might feel less charitable than men toward the intern Clinton allegedly had an affair with, Monica Lewinsky, Blair adds. "Maybe women think she was acting seductive," says Blair. "Men ... might say, 'Oh well, if I had the chance with a 21-year-old intern.... So he probably did it.' "

During the 1996 campaign, a columnist for the Greenville (S.C.) Times Examiner came up with a now-famous, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, explanation for why Clinton has a gender gap with women. "Women are dumb about men...," wrote Linda Lamb. "As evidence, check out all those 'advice for lovers of lunkheads' books. There's no end to the titles like ... 'Why You Keep Falling in Love with Arrogant Jerks Who Treat You Like Garbage ...'

"Who are these women who are buying all of these books?" Ms. Lamb asks. "The same women who like Bill Clinton."

A more serious explanation women give for why they like Clinton is that he has always surrounded himself with strong women and promoted their careers -- from his wife, Hillary, to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

As long as Hillary Clinton is defending her husband, some women argue, they'll stick with him, too. "Women are more inclined to feel sympathy for Hillary," says Danielle Crittenden, editor of the conservative Women's Quarterly journal. "They don't like the press and the lurid details blasted over the TV with their kids in the room. They get mad at the messenger."

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