On Friday, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said that her opponents attacked her collectively in last week’s Democratic debate because she is currently the front runner in the race for the White House. Clinton strategist Mark Penn suggested that co-moderator Tim Russert was part of the pile-on as well. The explanation followed several days in which she and her campaign let her supporters know that part of their agenda might have been that she’s a girl who might actually run the clubhouse. Now, the first poll after the debate shows her support unaffected by the performance, which pundits described with patent delight as “her downfall” (Chris Matthews, "Hardball," Wednesday), her “humbl[ing]” (Matthews again, "Hardball," Thursday) and “really … a bad night” (Roger Simon, The Politico, Wednesday, accompanied by a picture of her in what can only be described as a chicken mask). Although Hillary might still stay ahead, Simon concluded, her easy days are over. This morning, the commentators of MSNBC seemed somewhat mystified by her “survival,” as they called it.

Why did she survive her so-called humbling, and, indeed, thrive? Here’s an explanation: In a democratic republic like the United States, the popular election of the chief executive gives the gender issue a symbolic punch that no other contest--not for senator, nor, in another system, for prime minister--carries. Amusingly, in her column about how much she hated hearing Hillary suggest that her treatment was related to her gender, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus noted and agreed with a poll which found that women expect a win by Hillary to create a positive change in peoples' attitudes toward women. Maybe changing peoples’ attitudes toward women is not as important as drivers’ licenses to the men on NBC, but apparently someone in the population is thinking it matters a lot to them.

In a wonderful concatenation, this same past week, New York Times "Life’s Work" columnist Lisa Belkin reported for what seemed like the millionth time, that the women’s business organization, Catalyst, found that no matter what women do in the workplace, they are perceived as deficient. In societies where strength is central to concepts of leadership, women are generally perceived as too soft, and the few strong women as too tough. In societies where cooperative styles are valued, as in Norway, women are perceived as non-delegators. The report is called “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t.” But the damning thing about the report is not its contents. It is that the report is, effectively, both thirty years old and as recent as yesterday’s news. The Belkin column received a lot of attention from blogs like Feministing, Salon Broadsheet, and the Huffington Post, with a heavy female readership, and even a day later was the most-e-mailed story in the entire New York Times. Women know Catalyst is not making this stuff up.

I don’t know why Russert singled her out for all the hard questions. If you watch him at the end of the debate, he has the smugly satisfied look of a man who accomplished his ends (minute 53:40 of Part II), legitimate or not.

Certainly, Russert has a long history of pursuing his personal agenda through his public power. In my favorite example, he was flogging Al Gore on his opposition to school vouchers during the 2000 election. Gore finally lost patience and uncharacteristically broke the fourth wall between beltway mandarins on the TV stage and the audience. “I know you’re in favor of vouchers,” Gore revealed. “Oh, no,” Russert said. “No, I have no view on it. I have no view on it.” In fact, Russert and his family foundation, which he established several years before this exchange, give gifts mostly to Catholic private schools--a voucher for inner city youth to attend Catholic schools, gifts to his private alma mater, a private Catholic high school, and an award every year to a private Catholic school teacher. Now, there’s nothing wrong with charity (although the richly paid commentator isn’t exactly tithing with his handful of contributions), but it is hard to believe that he’s giving such charity as he does give to something about which he has no view.

But the question of whether Russert tried to bring down Clinton because she’s the front runner or for more personal reasons (she’s a Clinton, she's a liberal) is not as important as the whiff of sexist bullying that surrounded the debate, like the faint smell of gas in the house when the pilot light blows out. The conventional wisdom is that by openly calling attention to the possibility of a gender agenda, women lose, so they speak in coded language to each other instead, which is what the Clinton campaign did. Garance Francke-Ruta has a brilliant column on this on TAPPED. The polling data reflects that this coded message got through loud and clear.

My autobiography is no more convincing than anyone else’s, and it certainly didn’t put me automatically behind the female candidate this year or any other year. Still, sometimes a story captures what no study or polling data can. Mine goes back to my third year at the University of Chicago Law School in 1968. My husband knew some pretty fancy people, so one night we left our student digs and went to a grown-up cocktail party on the fashionable north side of town. Unexpectedly for such a social gathering, a newly minted federal prosecutor turned the conversation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Fresh from a course in constitutional law myself, I volunteered that the Civil Rights Act would have been better grounded in Congress’ power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment than in the somewhat tortured interpretation of Congress’ Commerce Power they had used.

The young man who had raised the question glanced at me and turned back to the rest of the group. “I wasn’t talking to her,” he said. “I was talking to the lawyers.” I don’t remember every cocktail party conversation I had in 1968. But I sure remember that one. Do women voters, especially the college-educated women voters, remember things like that, too? If they do, then Clinton’s support is going to continue to be stickier than the Beltway commentators expect.

LINDA HIRSHMAN is the author of Get to Work.

By Linda Hirshman