Respect is a powerful word for women, probably because it's something most of us get far too little of. In a nutshell, that's why Sen. Clinton's fighting stance these past few months has touched a gender chord that has resonated with women everywhere.
Across demographics, women clearly want to see someone fight for their right to be respected. And you didn't have to listen hard to hear Clinton demanding just that for her supporters Tuesday night.
Respect: Forty years after Aretha Franklin scored a hit by demanding it, women are still searching for it, and the undermining role sexism played in this campaign has left many feeling its lack in Clinton's race to the top.
A just-released Pew Research Center poll found that nearly 40 percent of Clinton's female supporters believe that her gender hurt her candidacy. This being 2008, that sexism often took a more subtle path than in the past, taking bites out of Clinton's authority and "likeability" in ways that were arguably more insidious than the overt epithets.
Overt or understated, this primary season was undeniably disrespectful to a woman who instead deserved our utmost respect, just like any other candidate for our nation's highest office.
Of course, gender played against Clinton, as it inevitably will as long as we stay in the business of throwing one woman at a time up to the top. Doing so necessitates that a woman prove she's "man enough" for the job, it demands an impossible level of "perfection," and it requires a balancing act between the tough and the feminine that even the Cirque du Soleil couldn't manage.
A sole woman vying for the top position will always have to be twice as good to be just good enough. The truth is, women have been empowered in this country, but we are not in power.
The common feeling in America is that women have made it, but we rank a paltry 71st in the world when it comes to women's political representation. We have only nine female governors and have been stuck at an average of 22 percent of representation in state legislatures for more than a decade.
But the good news is that Clinton's candidacy marks the starting point of a new political movement, one that finally brings women of all backgrounds into the political spotlight.
Since Clinton launched her campaign, I have met thousands of these women across the country. They are eager to lead a political life and are stepping up to the plate to seek training and enter politics. And they won't be stepping into unkind waters once they do enter the field: Clinton's race showed that Americans are comfortable with the idea of a woman at the very top, and polls echo the trend.
The fact that a woman fell short of the presidency this time around may be a grievous event for many women in this country, but America's demonstrated comfort with a female president is something that all of us should be celebrating.
Building this kind of respect for the women who come after her is the great legacy that Clinton leaves. The women who have supported her owe her a similar version of that respect, by not sitting out an election that she has given her all to win, or by refusing to support another candidate who espouses values similar to their own.
This is the true test of loyalty to Clinton and to the democratic values that drew them to her in the first place.
If Sens. Obama and McCain want the backing of Sen. Clinton's supporters, as they have both made clear they do, then each of them will have to find a way to show women real respect: by advocating policies that benefit women and families and by advancing women's leadership in their own campaigns and potential administrations.
If Obama can continue to speak to Clinton supporters as he did Tuesday night, eventually, he will be heard. As for Sen. McCain, his support of tax cuts for the wealthy and his positions on reproductive choice and health care make him the less natural surrogate for Clinton.
Still, expect to see his campaign continue to vie for the constituency. Women may yet struggle to garner respect as we lead, but nobody questions our power as a voting bloc.
Originally published at CNN.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).