When Roxanne Conlin stepped into a grain elevator during her 1982 campaign for Iowa governor, the farmers inside, in seed corn hats and overalls, burst into laughter when she asked for their support.
"They all just guffawed until I left," recalls Ms. Conlin, a former US attorney who narrowly lost the open race. "It was not an uncommon reaction. People would say to me, 'What do you think you're doing? You've got four kids, go home.' "
Twenty-five years later, Iowa remains the only state besides Mississippi never to have elected a woman to the governor's office or to Congress. A bedeviling question is how that legacy will play for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking to become the first woman president and is in a far tighter race for the Democratic presidential nomination in Iowa than she is in other early-primary states.
Senator Clinton told a Des Moines Register columnist this week that she was "shocked" to hear of Iowa's failure to elect a female governor or member of Congress and said it posed a "special burden" for her.
"I have to maybe reassure people here maybe more than I do in New Hampshire, which has had a woman governor," she said.
Anything short of victory in Iowa would puncture the aura of inevitability that surrounds her nomination nationally. Some analysts saw her remarks as an effort to lower expectations in this key early voting state. Interviews with Democratic voters this week suggest that Clinton remains a polarizing figure in Iowa, if not just because of her gender.
"I'm not going to vote for someone just because they have the same reproductive system I do," says Jennifer Lunsford, a dairy farmer who chairs the Jefferson County Democratic Party, in southeast Iowa. "I'm going to vote for someone who has the same convictions."
Ms. Lunsford, who is backing Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, said she was put off by what she sees as Clinton's divisive politics and weak explanation of her 2002 vote for the Iraq war.
At the other end of the spectrum is Stephanie Calhoun, a grandmother of 23, who says Clinton has inspired her to vote for the first time. "It's time for a woman to take charge," Ms. Calhoun, a live-in caretaker for the elderly, said as she waited for takeout Chinese food in downtown Des Moines Wednesday. "She's outgoing, and she's outspoken, and it doesn't matter what kind of shoes she wears."
Current and former female politicians in Iowa say many older residents in this rural state hold traditional views of gender roles. But they say factors with no bearing on Clinton's bid – bad timing, and lack of campaign funds or name recognition – have also played a part in the fate of women candidates for governor and Congress.
Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, a Democrat with no plans to endorse in the caucuses, says of Clinton, "She may face what I and any other woman who has run for political office did, and that's a small percentage of people who will make a decision based on her gender. It is not a make or break."
Clinton's unease over Iowa surfaced publicly in May, when an internal campaign memo calling Iowa "our consistently weakest state" and urging a pullout from the caucuses leaked to the press. Clinton responded that she had rejected the advice and has since ramped up campaign operations here.
She purchased local TV ads to compete with those of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and campaigned with her husband, Bill Clinton, and the wives of former Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa gubernatorial candidate who co-chairs Clinton's Midwest campaign, says Clinton has gone to lengths to highlight her role as a mother. In a state that prizes strong families, she says, Clinton's decision to stay with her husband through a rocky marriage also resonates. "While her marital status may have hurt her in urban centers, I think it helps here," said Ms. Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general.
Clinton has pulled to the front only in recent polls of Iowa Democrats. For months she had trailed Mr. Edwards, who placed second in Iowa in 2004 and has campaigned in the state for years. She is ahead of her nearest rival by as much as 20 points in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, but her lead here – six points over Edwards in the authoritative Iowa Poll earlier this month – is narrow.
And it remains fragile. According to the Iowa Poll, more Democratic caucusgoers – 41 percent – have ruled her out than they have either Edwards and Senator Obama. Edwards is still the favorite among men, and 42 percent of all Democratic caucusgoers say they thought Clinton's gender would hurt her chances on election day.
Even so, Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University's Catt Center for Women and Politics, said that in Iowa's unusual system of selecting party nominees, Clinton's gender may help in at least one way: The Democrats who attend caucuses are disproportionately female, many of them baby boomers like her.
Invited to talk about women and leadership at the Catt Center on campus here Wednesday, Clinton chronicled the long strides since the suffrage movement and prodded the hundreds of women – and some men – in the audience to vote.
"I relish the opportunity to be part of making history with all of you," she said.
Getting up to leave afterward, Janet Fitzpatrick, a graduate student in women's studies, said she had yet to be persuaded. She said she wanted a Democrat in the White House more than she did a woman and fretted over Clinton's prospects in the general election. "Yes, more women vote now," said Ms. Fitzpatrick, of the nearby town of Nevada, who is torn between Clinton and Edwards. "But are women comfortable voting for another woman? I think a lot of them are just not there yet."