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Susan Estrich: Year of the Sweetie?

Have we gone from the "Year of the Woman" to the "Year of the Sweetie"?

So it appears. It's not the "sweetie" part that gets me, and I suspect a lot of other women. It's the concern that, not to sound trite, some of the guys out there, maybe including the probable Democratic nominee for President, just don't "get it."

If you can remember that far back, this was supposed to be another one of those "Year of the Woman" elections, the first time a woman was entering the race as the frontrunner for her party's nomination, with the big question being whether women would see this as the historic occasion it was and abandon their concerns about whether Hillary should've dumped Bill over Monica and whether it was her ambition that kept them together. Hillary's problems with women, going back to the "stand by her man" comment and her lack of interest in baking chocolate chip cookies, have been discussed literally for decades. During her first Senate race, it took her months of listening, the patronizing sexism of her opponent in their one and only debate, and a particularly effective ad by a breast cancer survivor reminding women that Hillary would be there for them on the issues that matter, before women moved to support her in major numbers and handed her a substantial majority of the votes. So there was some doubt, this time, about whether women would support one of their own or, maybe more fundamentally, see Hillary Rodham Clinton that way.

They have. Women "saved" Hillary in New Hampshire, or at least that's what all the talkers said that night, when to their great surprise, Hillary easily defeated Obama after her much-discussed "tearing up" in a roundtable on the day before the election in a New Hampshire diner. And they have been with her in every major contest since, especially white and Hispanic women. And not just elite, well-educated professional women, the black suit girls like herself (and yours truly) who could so easily recognize in so much of the sexism displayed towards Hillary by the media and the mavens the forces we have all confronted in our pursuit of our dreams. No, working women of every stripe, mothers and grandmothers, single and married, are the reason that Obama's near unanimous backing by African-Americans and his success among elites in low-turnout caucuses has not been enough to allow him to clinch the nomination, at least not yet.

Sure, there are women who still don't like Hillary. Believe me, they will be writing to me when they read this column. I know. You're out there. But the fact is that if women were the ones doing the picking, Hillary would be the nominee. Simple as that.

It is also absolutely clear that Obama can't win without them, and that "sweetie" is not an accurate description of their connection to him right now.

In case you missed the latest, Senator Obama responded to a Detroit reporter asking him a question about his plans for economically depressed Michigan workers by dismissing her as "sweetie."

"Senator," asked Peggy Agar, " how are you going to help the American autoworkers?"

"Hold on a second, sweetie. We'll hold a press avail," Obama replied, putting her off until a later press conference.

"That's a bad habit of mine," Obama said in a voicemail message he left for the reporter some hours later. "I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front."

It was not Senator Obama's first public "sweetie." Earlier in the campaign, Obama said to a woman, "Sweetie, if I start with a picture I will never get out of here." And: "Sweetie if I start doing autographs I just won't be ... I am really late."

Agar, reached for comment later, said she'd been called worse things. Who hasn't? It's no big deal. I call people "sweetie" myself, although I usually reserve it for people I know.

If there were no wounds to be rubbing salt into, it wouldn't matter. But there are. And Senator Obama and his supporters need to understand that.

For many women, Hillary Clinton was not just another candidate, and the fact that this campaign has been drenched in sexism has only made that identification stronger. Watching Hillary take a beating and come back, watching mostly (but not entirely) male reporters and pundits demean and dismiss her, question her motives, her appearance and her sexual orientation, has brought home for many women not how far we've come, but how far we have to go. Seeing the vigor with which some, starting with the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, pounced on Clinton's victory in West Virginia to try to push her off the stage (since when do people demand that the winner quit?), has produced far more anger and resentment among women than Obama's reference to Ms. Agar as "sweetie." There is nothing sweet about the way Hillary has been covered in this campaign, about the way she has been attacked, about the meanness and mean-spiritiedness that has been in evidence from the beginning. If women didn't understand why we need a woman President when we started this march, a good many of them surely do now.

Will these women ultimately vote for Barack Obama? Maybe. The "gender gap," much discussed in every election cycle in the last three decades, is the shorthand version of much longer analysis of why it is that women are more likely to vote Democratic than men; while women are hardly a voting bloc, the fact that we earn less than men, live longer, and worry more about domestic issues all play some role in making us more likely to end up in the Democratic column. If Obama is to win, he needs the votes of women, sweeties or not. It should not be taken for granted. Or rather, we shouldn't.

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.

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.