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After Clinton's defeat, what's the path for women?

WASHINGTON - The first female president was supposed to make history by accumulating such deep experience that few could deny her ability to serve as commander-in-chief.

WASHINGTON - The first female president was supposed to make history by accumulating such deep experience that few could deny her ability to serve as commander-in-chief.

Hillary Clinton did that, and lost. Now, female politicians and those working to elect them - Democrats and Republicans alike - are sifting through her defeat to understand what her loss means for women who run for president in the future.

Their effort is complicated by the things that made Clinton's nomination both inevitable and troubled: her singular standing and unique negatives.

Though the number of women elected to office has grown markedly over the decades, polling shows that in a race for the White House they still must demonstrate they are capable of commanding the government and in particular the U.S. military, a masculine institution despite its own gender strides.

That inevitably conflicts with another voter demand, for a fresh face - such as that, say, of President Obama, who defeated Clinton in the Democratic primaries in 2008 in part because he appealed to voters' desire for change.

"You can't get those qualifications, get that resumé, while also being able to present yourself as a change candidate," said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden. "Men aren't held to the same standard of proving their credentials."

Clinton's experience won her plaudits from voters who throughout the campaign saw her as best prepared to assume the presidency. That may have helped her win the popular vote, but she lost the electoral college to a man who had never before run for elective office or served in government.

Most damaging, she was unable to fully benefit from the advantages that usually flow to a woman candidate - being seen by voters as more honest, trustworthy and both a unifier and the one who most cares about constituents' concerns.

That has left a puzzle: How much of the loss reflected Clinton's particular vulnerabilities, how much involved opposition that any future woman candidate may face?

Unquestionably, Clinton faced unique problems: her decision as secretary of state to use a private email server, which led to extended controversies; media coverage of separate Democratic emails now believed to have been hacked by Russian operatives; and a relentless line of assault casting her as corrupt, first by primary challenger Bernie Sanders and later by Donald Trump.

She also faced a unique opponent, Trump, whose image of swashbuckling masculinity shaped the campaign more than any of Clinton's milder efforts to use gender to her advantage.

Clinton's supporters have been left counting smaller victories, such as the fact that she won more votes than any candidate ever, apart from Obama.

They are also casting Clinton's reach for history as part of a decades-long effort that, by definition, includes stumbles.

"It's been a struggle, it's always been a struggle - that's the nature of the fight for equality," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who was elected in 1992, a year when the number of women senators tripled.

Women currently hold one-fifth of the seats in the Senate and the House, as well as six governorships, positions that serve as one form of entree to a White House bid. Women hold prominent positions in business, which Trump demonstrated can be a launching pad.

But some suggest that this year's campaign portends trouble for whichever women come next.

At a recent panel discussion at Harvard's Institute of Politics, which included representatives from both campaigns, Trump's manager, Kellyanne Conway, argued that the country was ready to elect a woman president - just not this particular woman in a year in which voters demanded change.

"On gender, it wasn't a hypothetical," she said of voters' options. "It was Hillary. So it's not just a woman; it's one that people had lived with for quite a while."

That drew a pained response from Clinton's media strategist, Mandy Grunwald, who suggested that Clinton had rare standing to be seen as a potential commander in chief, given her tenure as secretary of state, U.S. senator from New York, and a first lady deeply involved in policy matters.

"You may think the country is ready for a woman, any old woman, just a different one. There are very few people who will ever meet that test," Grunwald said, adding: "I hope I am wrong."

Clinton's campaign was a real-world test that shined a bright light at some of the downsides of women's candidacies.

The degree of punishment she took from voters concerned about perceived ethical lapses was one of those. Throughout the campaign, prompted by broadsides from Sanders and Trump, voters were sharply critical of Clinton when it came to honesty and truthfulness.

The virulence of their sentiments suggested that women, usually held in high regard on those fronts, suffer more than male candidates when seen as not meeting that standard.

"[For women candidates] that fall from the pedestal may be longer and harder," Dittmar said.

Clinton's perceived ethical difficulties, she noted, took more of a toll than Trump's arguably larger constellation of problems, which included repetitive falsehoods, wrongdoing by his foundation, tax issues, and the fraud case leveled against Trump University.

"One reason could be that we expected it," Dittmar said. "We expect that men have those issues."