Back in the 1930s, there was a female president, and she was Rita DeFiore. In grade school and middle school in South Philadelphia, she was president of "Classes 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 7a, 7b, 8a and 8b."

"Then I gave it up," DeFiore, 85, a retired telephone operator, said yesterday with a what-might-have-been twinge that 70 years had not completely erased.

And so, it was with a particularly personal sense of loss, disappointment and anger that DeFiore and women like her faced up to the apparent end of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential ambitions - ambitions that had seemed to leapfrog from their own more modest goals, only to end up, frustratingly and perhaps typically, out of reach.

"I didn't think it would end up like this - they really put Hillary down," said Theresa Christian, 38, a bus driver from Coatesville. "But this is America - they don't want a woman in the White House. But I'm still proud of her. I have to give her props because she tried."

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Candi Collazzo, 68, of South Philadelphia, a homemaker and the widow of a court reporter. "I kind of knew she wouldn't win. It's a sin to say it, but I don't think the country is ready."

The jolt of the near miss, of feeling emboldened only to be put back in their place, weighed heavily on some women yesterday as they balanced pride with defeat.

"I feel really bad," said Lani Frank, 53, of Berwyn, a mother of three who managed the 2006 campaign of State Rep. Barbara McIlvaine Smith.

"I feel like this was her moment, our moment, the chance to show what a woman can do. I have a daughter. This was not the rhetoric 'Women can do anything.' It was proof women can do anything."

Frank said she was angered by the pressure on Clinton to end her campaign: "It was like the 'little woman' should move aside."

Sadie Iannacone, 96, a retired Whitman's Chocolates worker who was 8 when women won the right to vote, found herself imagining how Clinton must be feeling. "She campaigned so strong, and she must be very sad today. She was so close."

The sorrow and anger felt among some Clinton supporters, particularly older women whose own ambitions had been curtailed, is potent, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.

"Women who have been told their whole life there were certain professions open to them - nurse, teacher, secretary - told to take typing, 'you'll always have a job if you can type.' . . . For those women," Walsh said, "this campaign meant something very deep and very personal."

Pennsylvania State Sen. Connie Williams, 63, said she had been in politics most of her life, "but this one really hurts."

A strong Clinton supporter, she said she was finding it hard to talk about yesterday. "I think we're all in mourning. I know my mother is."

Williams said the campaign showed that women have further to go: "Until we have equity in the rank and file, and the backroom deal-makers aren't all men, we're going to have problems."

Some women were skittish about the implications of Clinton's possibly becoming vice president.

"She'll do all the work, and he'll get all the credit," said DeFiore, the class president.

The letdown of Clinton's defeat prompted women yesterday to ponder disappointments experienced by themselves and by women in their own families, stories that had been told to them as girls.

At the Three Beans Cafe in Haddonfield, Judy Isaacs, 69, of Maple Shade, recalled her mother's telling her that in 1925, as a secretary for a real estate company, she asked if she could try selling property herself.

"They said, 'No, of course not. You're a married woman,' " Isaacs said. Most deals were made between men over lunches.

And in the 1950s, Isaacs' sister, who was engaged at the time, was offered a Rhodes scholarship. She had to turn it down because she refused to sign a pledge that she wouldn't get married.

Chris Spirgel of Moorestown, who teaches statistics and math at Burlington County College and has three sons, recalls the difficulty of being accepted as a woman of ambition.

In her electrical engineering class, where she was one of two women, the professor would look at her name on paper and call her "Mister." When she worked part-time after the birth of her child, she found she did not fit into either sphere. "To my coworkers, I wasn't serious about my career"; to other mothers, "I was abandoning my child."

Her friend Sue Ward, 54, of Cherry Hill, said she believed that in the end, Clinton's gender hurt her. "I think a lot of people were not ready for a woman to behave as she did - strong, capable, and speaking what was on her mind. People always referred to her as Hillary," she complained.

"And him as Sen. Obama," Spirgel added.

"It was really annoying," Ward said.

Despite the ending, Ward said, it has been "fantastic" for her daughter to see a woman running for president.

Spirgel, 45, said: "I would like to see a woman in the White House before I die."

Clinton's unflagging determination, exemplified even in her non-concession speech Tuesday, stirred women in different ways.

Speaking at 30th Street Station on her way to Boston, Edith Perry, 55, of Philadelphia, praised the way Clinton faced a negative press. "She would reappear the next day with just as much tenacity and strength," said Perry, the former owner of a travel agency. "It should give inspiration to everybody."

"I think she's opened a lot of doors for women," said Gwendolyn Boots, 49, of Lancaster, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama who said she would have voted for either candidate in the general election.

But for Carol Parssinen, 66, an educational programming consultant, Clinton's campaign left her dismayed and angry. And not because she lost.

"As a lifelong feminist and female professional, I'm furious with her. She played into the worst stereotypes - women taking every defeat personally, unable to deal with larger issues, playing the victim card. I looked at the faces of the feminists around her, with the vitriol in their eyes. She's reduced these people. She hasn't enlarged them or ennobled them."

Some women said that come November, they are determined to vote for her anyway, as a write-in.

"I feel like that's the only way my voice will be heard," said Catherine Neal, 39, of South Philadelphia. "McCain's going to get it either way. There's a lot of voters who don't want to see a black man as president."

If nothing else, the Clinton campaign cemented the idea that relentlessness is a feminine trait.

Lara M. Brown, 38, of Bryn Mawr, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, is a student of the electoral process - and a Clinton supporter.

As far as she's concerned, Clinton is still in the running. "I believe nothing is over until the vote happens in August."

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Nancy Petersen contributed to this article.