WITH Hillary edging ever closer to the won't-finish line in the Democratic primary, the inevitable rending of garments that a woman may never again mount a successful run for the presidency has begun.

Last Thursday, Marie Cocco wrote a column for the Washington Post suggesting that "if Clinton is not the nominee, no woman will seriously contend for the White House for another generation." Days earlier, Kate Zernike penned a piece for the New York Times bemoaning the fact that "there is no Hillary waiting in the wings." In Saturday's Chicago Tribune, Mark Silva asked whether "Hillary Clinton paved the way for anyone but herself."

Perhaps it's the inevitable byproduct of the accusation that anyone who failed to support Clinton's bid has doomed feminism, but the claim that the doors have slammed on decades of future female presidents is as maddening as the Olympics of Oppression that preceded it.

The folks saying we've let the presidency slip through our fingers arrive at this conclusion by pressing the same flawed syllogism: The only viable female candidate thus far has been Hillary. Hillary didn't win. Ergo, there will never be another viable woman.

Zernike sets up her article with a composite sketch of qualities any Clinton successor will require: "She will come from the South, or west of the Mississippi. She will be a Democrat who has won in a red state, or a Republican who has emerged from the private sector to run for governor . . . will have proven herself to be 'a fighter' (a caring one, of course) . . . She will be young enough to qualify as postfeminist . . . married with children, but not young children."

In short, she doesn't exist.

We all know these double standards exist for women in public life. Voters want toughness but not bitchiness, confidence but not shrillness, authenticity but also glamour.

But if the Clinton candidacy has taught us anything, it's that a woman can straddle all those demands and still win. She can win more than 16 million votes in the primaries and around 1,779 delegates. Clinton has shown that a woman can win huge at the ballot box and bring in huge money, and even if Obama ultimately gets the nomination, those facts will not change.

Faced with all that evidence of success, how do the naysayers prove it can never be repeated?

By advancing the argument that no woman will ever win the presidency without the advantages of a Hillary because only those advantages account for her success, we do more to disrespect her talents than all of the oily misogynists on Fox News. Across the country, in the most unlikely ways and places, Hillary kicked butt. Why take that away now?

WE HAVE no evidence that the next woman who runs for president won't succeed, especially if one or two possible candidates are tapped this summer for a vice-presidential run. And so we arrive at the real stumbling block for any future female candidate. One way or another, the naysayers want to conclude (including, at times, Clinton herself) that the Clinton campaign was ultimately derailed by the same pervasive sexism that will scuttle the next woman's chances.

Never mind that this conclusion is belied by polls Zernike cites indicating that 86 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman. Never mind that it's also belied by Clinton's own historic achievements.

A suggestion: Women will compete again because most of us will have been more inspired by the Clinton run than scared off by it. They'll put themselves through it because - for the first time in history - they'll know what it looks like when a woman almost scores.

And some will also put themselves through it because having been sickened by the "iron my shirts" moments, they'll do what women did in 1992 after watching Anita Hill endure outrageous nuts-and-sluts treatment at the hands of an all-male Senate judiciary committee. They'll swarm government.

If Hillary has taught the women of America anything, it's never to say never. Which is why it would be lamentable if the only lesson we take from her candidacy were that nothing like it will ever happen again. *

Dahlia Lithwick a senior editor at Slate (slate.com), where this first appeared.