Could it be gender?

In the wake of the newfound sense of shakiness in Hillary Clinton’s numbers, there’s been a new round of stories and a renewed focus on her gender.

Writing in Newsday this week, Robin Gerber, a senior faculty member in the Gallup organization and an expert on Eleanor Roosevelt, argues that Hillary “should play the gender card to the hilt” to deal with a “trust” problem that Ms. Gerber lays directly at the door of her gender.

Gerber argues, pointing to studies of the challenges women face in corporate America, that Hillary faces the same problem many high-level women do, who find that being aggressive and self-promoting leads both men and women to respond negatively to them, in ways they don’t to men with similar traits.

Ms. Gerber isn’t the only one asking these questions: my own informal survey, measured by the press questions I get, suggests that once again, reporters are wondering whether America is really ready for a woman president. As the voting approaches, Barack Obama is getting points for making a “feminist” appeal (He’s used to having strong women in his life, one ad notes), while Hillary seems to be getting the shaft for being one.

Could it be? Has politics really changed so little?

Of course it could.

There’s just one problem. The only way Hillary could make things worse is to take Ms. Gerber’s advice. The worst thing you can do in a sexist world is complain about it. The only thing people like less than aggressive, ambitious women is agressive, ambitious women who complain about being treated unfairly in their pursuit of their ambitions. What rhymes with witch? Got it?

This is the dilemma.

The more you complain, the more people resent your complaining. The more you cry sexism, the more you strengthen its force. The only thing worse than a loudmouth woman is a loudmouth woman whiner. Even if she’s right.

We’ve reached the point in America where we’ve achieved equality, or something close to it, at the bottom. Whether measured in terms of education or pay or position, when it comes to first jobs, at least outside the ranks of fire departments and prison guards (among the last plantations), women tend to do just fine coming right in the door. If all elections were for school board, we’d be running the world. But they aren’t.

In the middle, women confront the familiar problems of how to balance work and family, how to respond with equal fervor to the ticking of the time clock at work and the biological clock at home. As my old (83 and going strong) friend Rose explained to me long ago, being a mother is not being a father. Not biologically and not practically. A father makes a peanut butter sandwich and he’s a hero; a mother makes one, and she and everyone else ask, where’s the jelly?

In the middle, women routinely make sacrifices at every turn, often not realizing that what they’re giving up can’t be gotten back. Don’t want to make partner/professor/manager in your thirties? Satisfied, indeed grateful, that there’s such a thing as the “mommy track?” Most women are, and by the time they realize that it’s not a detour but a dead end, there’s no turning back. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s another story.

It’s as you get closer to the top that you face what can only be described as discrimination, although it’s not of the old-fashioned sort. No one sits around and says, we don’t want a woman boss, CEO, governor or president because we don’t like/trust/respect women, or at least they don’t say it out loud, with a straight face. But sexism is still out there, funny even, both a joke and a reality, passed on to kids of mothers who thought they had changed the world.

My 14-year-old son came home from school the other day desperate to tell his older sister and me the jokes he had heard that day.

“Want to hear a joke,” he said to us, and before we could even answer, he blurted out the punch line: “Women’s rights.” Or how about this one: Why did the woman cross the road? The punch line: The real question is what was she doing out of the kitchen.

Did I mention that I’m a lousy cook?

At the top, discrimination usually takes a more insidious form. An aggressive man is masculine; the more masculine you are, the better. For a woman, being too feminine, in a professional context, opens you up to the impression that you’re not serious/tough/aggressive enough, but being too serious, tough and aggressive may leave people uncomfortable that you’re really not feminine enough.

Catalyst, the organization that counts (mostly on one hand, and never as high as 10) the number of women who have gotten to the top of the Fortune 500 calls it “the double bind.” I call it a vise. Hillary lives inside it. The worst part is, most people, unlike my son, aren’t even conscious of the double standard they’re applying. And the last thing a candidate can do, if she wants their vote, is to tell them.

No one ever said it would be easy. If it were, someone would have already done it.

Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless. "

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.