Venus, Mars and picking on Hillary

I don't understand women.

The other day I was leading the weekly majority-female retirees' class, which is generally center-left and seldom in disagreement with my pontificating, at least openly.

On this occasion I lit into Hillary Clinton for double-talk in the recent debate, then having the audacity to try to reconstruct herself by letting her supporters play the gender card. She got herself portrayed as the poor mistreated little lady under attack from all those big old mean men in that oppressive all-boys club. You know -- abusive dudes such as John Edwards and Chris Dodd. Talk about having it both ways.

But the cake was taken, or so I pronounced, by Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee. Defending her sister Hillary, Ferraro said that no one would have stood for a bunch of white men piling on a black man like Barack Obama the way the other candidates piled on Hillary in that debate.

Racial discrimination is wrong, but gender discrimination seems all right, Geraldine asserted.

That was outrageous on its face. If Barack was as far ahead as Hillary, he'd get piled on the same way, and there would be no racial backlash.

So I asked the retirees' class, in reference to Ferraro's nonsense: "Is anybody here buying what she said?"

And they shouted at me -- these genteel retired women did. And here's what they shouted: "Yes!"

That is to say that scores of intelligent, sensitive, fair-minded women of a mature age were indicating that they apparently believe that they face discrimination not only akin to what black people face, but, in fact, worse in that it remains more acceptable to pick on them than on black people.

I stood a few feet from them and on an entirely different planet.

We could argue about this. I could say that white men didn't run from the public schools because girls were brought in. I could say that we don't concentrate the women in their own neglected, impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods. I could suggest we compare the black men given the death penalty in recent years to the women given the same. Woman, I should say. All I would be accomplishing would be a deeper hole for myself. It would be unpleasant, and, alas, unproductive.

So I should try, at least, to sensitize myself. Women historically have made less money than men while only a very few women have risen to political office or corporate boardrooms in a country still dominated in positions of political and economic power by men.

That helps explain the dynamic of feeling oppressed, though I can't say it begins to lend the least credence to Ferraro's ludicrous assertion about the treatment of Hillary and Obama.

Suffice, then, to make this highly relevant political point: There is more at work in the minds of women regarding Hillary's candidacy than the average white guy can begin to understand. Hillary and her campaign know that, which would explain the tactical playing of the gender card. This was a raw calculation that the connection to woman would exceed the transparent hypocrisy.

That this didn't apply to, say, Elizabeth Dole, is a simple reflection that Dole wasn't a serious candidate. Women lean Democratic and take more seriously one who runs on their side -- and who has much more than the snowball's chance Dole had.

Finally, plaudits to Hillary for playing the gender card herself without actually playing it. She said they piled on her not because she was a woman, but because she was winning. She said Harry Truman said to get out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat. She said that, luckily, she'd spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

She distanced herself from a point even as she made it. How positively Clintonian.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@