At Tommy’s restaurant in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where the menu ranges from egg creams to vegan tempeh burgers, there’s something for every age and political persuasion. So when Carolyn Smith went there recently to celebrate her 78th birthday with dinner and milk shakes, she and her daughter and granddaughter became an instant focus group on Hillary Clinton. Is the candidate making history, and how much does it matter if she is? As you might guess from exit polls, Carolyn voted for Clinton–most older women did. Her 49-year-old daughter Cindy voted for Bernie Sanders but is “coming around.” And granddaughter Josephine Sicking, 18–well, she wasn’t sold at all.
“She’s the most qualified person in history,” protests Cindy, a hairdresser with a bright purple streak in her hair, trying to cajole her daughter. “A woman’s outlook, a woman’s intuition, a woman’s empathy–we need some of that,” says Carolyn.
But Josephine will not budge. Wearing a home-made tie-dyed T-shirt, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, she couldn’t care less about Clinton’s cracking the glass ceiling. She sees Sanders’ defeat as evidence of a vast conspiracy against political fairness. “Even if Hillary wins, it’s just the lesser of two evils,” Josephine continues. “I know we could come up with a better system than what we have today.”
Freeze that moment, and you will get a sense of the challenge facing Clinton over the next four months. Carolyn, Cindy and Josephine, from different generations and different life experiences, are asking themselves the same questions on the eve of Clinton’s general-election fight: How important is it to see a woman elected President of the United States? And should it affect their votes?
As it happens, the Republican nominee has already made gender an issue in his own crude terms. Donald Trump has accused Clinton of playing the “woman card,” said she “got schlonged” by Barack Obama in 2008 and posited that Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” But after more than five dozen interviews with female voters in three Ohio cities in the muggy days leading up to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, this much is clear: the only thing American women resent more than offensive rhetoric is the expectation of a unified reaction to it. At a moment when Clinton has gone further in American politics than any other woman in history, many women, like Josephine, find themselves saying that Clinton’s gender isn’t as important as they thought it would be.
Overall, Clinton is winning women voters by historic margins. A July poll from Pew Research found that 59% of female voters prefer Clinton, compared with 51% and 55% of women who backed Obama in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Even older white women, who favored Republicans in those two elections, support her by a 5-point margin.
But she was never going to win over women by the kind of 9-1 margin by which Obama won over black voters in 2008. There are 157 million American women, who make up more than half the U.S. population. The expectation that Clinton would get the near-universal support of such an enormous and diverse population is an example of the astronomical standard to which she is held. Instead, Clinton turns out to be more of a prism than an icon, projecting the kaleidoscopic aspirations and anxieties of American women. After her 25 years on the public stage, voters have had ample chance to weigh her character, policies, instincts and attitudes; at this point most have already formed an opinion of her as an individual, not a symbol.
Her gender is something of an afterthought for many women. From waitresses to judges, nurses to lawmakers, accountants to grandmothers, each voter had a different set of reasons for supporting or opposing Clinton. Gender was almost never at the top of the list.
Weighing the value of Clinton’s gender is a delicate calibration, fraught with social taboo: if you’re too excited about the idea of a female President, you’re seen as politically naive; if you’re not excited enough, you’re insufficiently feminist. There’s also a rift along generational lines: older women who have survived decades of sexism tend to be more invested in Clinton’s rise, while many younger women think of Clinton’s brand of feminism as narrow and outdated.
That’s why the six women gathered around at a Columbus Starbucks seem to exhale as soon as they sit down. They’re lawyers and marketing executives ranging in age from 30 to 60, wearing jackets and cardigans and trading colorful business cards. They all use the same word to describe what it’s like to voice enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton: exhausting.
Like many Clinton supporters, these women say publicly backing Clinton invites a kind of scrutiny that rivals what the candidate faces herself. “[People] dismiss your choice, they minimize it, they’re like, ‘You’re only doing it because she’s a woman,'” says Renata Ramsini, 32, of the reactions she gets. “Admitting you want a woman President is brave.”
“I think it’s more personal,” adds her friend Sarah Cherry, also a lawyer. “We’re more critical of ourselves, and society is critical of other women, so of course Hillary is under more scrutiny.”
That scrutiny can take harsher forms too. “It’ll be an inquisition: ‘How can you support her? Isn’t she a liar?'” says Kristin Boggs, 37. She says the election has been so volatile that “I don’t know that we’ve had a chance to really reflect on the magnitude of having a woman nominee.”
Boggs, a Democratic state representative for Ohio’s 18th district, is pregnant with her first child, a girl due in December. She occasionally smiles and rubs her belly as her friends discuss what could change under a female President. Theirs is an embattled hope, but it is hope all the same. “I’m trying to control my excitement,” says Boggs. “I’m a Democrat in Ohio; we know how easy it is to lose.”
For women who oppose Hillary Clinton, any suggestion of a gender-based affinity provokes an indignation that can quickly turn to white-hot rage. To some, placing a political value on Clinton’s gender is tantamount to putting a finger on the scale. Others are quick to attack any suggestion that they “should” feel a certain way about her.
The rage is often most keenly felt among Republican women, who can be more skeptical of feminist ideology in the first place and often have a baked-in loathing of the Clintons.
Which is what is clearly simmering in looks exchanged between the half-dozen Republican women who met for lunch at Bar Louie in downtown Cleveland on July 12. They knew they had been invited to talk about Clinton, and none of them were happy about it.
“I take real offense at the fact that I’m being labeled, that Hillary Clinton is entitled to my vote because I’m a woman,” says Rachel Mullen, a conservative blogger who has voted Republican for most of her life. All the heads around this table nod.
“I thought the whole point of the women’s movement was that women would not be labeled in a certain way,” agrees Anne Trakas, an administrative-services consultant. “And now they’re labeling us.” If these were women given to saying, “You go, girl!” to each other, this would be the moment.
Some of them resented the notion that Clinton’s campaign–or Clinton herself–was historic in any way. It was Eleanor Roosevelt who redefined the role of First Lady, not Hillary Clinton, argued Kimberly Bartlett, a political consultant. “Everybody is looking at Hillary as a first,” she says. “Well, no. There are other countries that have had women leaders. There’s Indira Gandhi, there’s Margaret Thatcher.”
To a surprising degree, being female was still seen by some women as a disadvantage. They wondered if a woman could be tough enough to be President. “If she’s got kids, she’s got too tender of a heart to make things go the way they should go,” says Beverly Bennett, a 70-year-old housewife visiting Cleveland from West Virginia. The campaign’s inspirational message is turned inside out: instead of “If she can do it, so can I,” some women seem to think, “If I couldn’t do it, how could she?” Even as they identify with her, they reject her. “I’m a woman,” Bennett argues. “I couldn’t do it myself.”
These women make comments that few men would dare. Arianna Lewis, a server at a Shaker Heights restaurant, jokes that Clinton might “snap” if somebody said the wrong thing to her at “that time of the month.” Latrice Robbins, 34, says she might not vote at all. “I don’t want an emotional woman running everything,” she says of Clinton, who at 68 is, one presumes, post-menopausal. “What if she’s on her menstrual period and wants to kill everyone?”
For decades, the dream of a female President has been dangled in front of ambitious young girls. Now that it may become a reality, many Ohio women say they feel differently about it than they thought they would. And that may produce votes for Hillary Clinton as well as some against.
Certainly, for the small group of voters gathered at the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio in Columbus, the nomination was a step in the right direction. “You can say ‘you can be whatever you want’ until you’re blue in the face, but until someone actually does it, there’s always a doubt,” says Kathy Bowman, a partner at a Columbus law firm.
Others said that the reality of a female presidential nominee felt much different than the idea of one. “I always assumed that I would see a woman, but on the night when she clinched it, I was surprised at how much it affected me,” said Heather Whaling, a marketing executive. “It was a much bigger deal than I thought it was going to be.”
One moment in particular that stood out was the June 7 speech where Clinton claimed the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn. When Clinton appeared triumphantly onstage to deliver her remarks, she was wearing a pure white coat, spotless and significant. “I didn’t expect that it was going to have this resonance, until she came out in that white jacket,” says Wendy Smooth, a professor at Ohio State University. She says she started to cry during that speech. “It was like, ‘I have come through the fire.’ Throw everything at her and it’s still a white coat.”
At the mention of that white jacket, a murmur spread throughout the room.
Outside the pink and green walls of the Women’s Fund, there was decidedly less reverence. Many other supporters who spoke with TIME said they were mostly motivated by aversion to Trump. “It could be Kermit the Frog and Donald Trump, and I’d pick Kermit the Frog,” says BriAna Golphin, a server at a Cleveland restaurant.
And even among some of those who oppose Clinton, there is a yearning for a different woman. “I wish I wanted her to be President,” said Margaret Nakles, a 22-year-old middle-school teacher who is considering voting for Trump. “It’s sad. I don’t want a dishonest woman to represent women.”
That about sums up why Carolyn and Cindy have their work cut out for them as they try to get Josephine to the polls. As the milk shakes are finished off, mother and grandmother list the reasons why they believe Clinton’s nomination is so important, and why a Trump presidency would be so disastrous. And Josephine seems convinced–kind of. “It’s nice to know we could have a female President after so long,” she finally admits.
Cindy and Carolyn share a glance. “We’re going to talk you into voting,” Cindy says. Josephine shrugs and says nothing. She still doesn’t seem all that excited about it.
This appears in the August 01, 2016 issue of TIME.