"From the beginning, she's been treated very badly," says Therese Murray, the president of the Massachusetts Senate. "No woman would have run with Obama's resume. She wouldn't have been considered." But Clinton has been "demonized by the press and the talking heads. How do you get away with that?"
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., says she is regularly approached "by women of all races, of all ages, of all faiths. They stop me, grab my hand and say, 'Look what they've done to her, we were so close.' They wanted this for their daughters and granddaughters. ... It's so heartbreaking."
For Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., the symbol that "sexism reigns supreme" was in the wide availability of offensive anti-Hillary paraphernalia in stores and on the Internet. For Barbara Johnson, president of the Minneapolis City Council, Clinton may have been the victim of "ageism" as much as sexism. The message, she said, was: "Your time is past, it's time for somebody new to take your place."
Many women, said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., "knew we had made many strides. They asked, 'Aren't we past this? What's going on?' They're not happy with what they see as sexism, permitted by the media and in some cases encouraged by the media."
If there is good news for Barack Obama in any of this, it is that the rage felt by Clinton's female supporters is directed in large part toward the media. "The anger is aimed much more at you all," said Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts of Rhode Island. Added Murray: "Obama wouldn't have gotten to where he got today if it weren't for the bias of the male media--no offense."
It's true that campaigns and political movements use anger as a bargaining chip. The message is: Appease us or we will cause trouble. The Clinton campaign is hoping that such rage will strengthen its hand in the battle to seat pro-Clinton Michigan and Florida delegations at the party's national convention, even though those states held early primaries in violation of party rules.
But the conversations I had this week with prominent female politicians from around the country who support Clinton suggest that the fury and disappointment is about more than short-term maneuvering. In many cases, it is rooted in the empathy of women who themselves broke gender barriers at various levels of politics.
Murray, for example, is the first woman to lead the Massachusetts Senate. Hooley was the first woman on the City Council in West Linn, Ore., and the first woman elected as a commissioner of Clackamas County. Johnson says proudly that she is the second woman to serve as president of the Minneapolis City Council. Her mother was the first.
"She (Clinton) is striking a chord among women who have been involved in politics for a long time and who have been waiting for a long time," said Nancy Kopp, Maryland's treasurer.
Female politicians feel for Clinton as someone who regularly faces questions male politicians would never be asked. When a reporter queried Roberts about "my brand of lipstick and what color was it," she revealed the vital information--"Revlon Number 235"--but noted that "some of my supporters were offended that she asked me."
These are professional politicians, so they know that Clinton is on the verge of defeat because of her campaign's organizational mistakes, its failure to take Obama seriously early on, and the difficulties created by her husband's presence. Roberts points to an age split among women, noting that her 19-year-old daughter Kathleen is a staunch Obama supporter. Obama, Kopp said, clearly has a strong appeal "among younger women, though that's true among many older women, too."
Indeed, Obama has the support of many prominent female elected officials, notably Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. He won significant female support in the primaries, carrying a majority of the women's vote in 13 states and splitting it evenly with Clinton in Wisconsin.
Nonetheless, even these very pragmatic female politicians who very much want a Democrat to win the White House are looking for signs of "understanding and respect," said Kopp.
"It's a campaign, someone wins, someone doesn't win, that's life," she said. "But women don't want to be totally dissed."
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published . He is a columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne