When Hillary Clinton announced for president in January 2007, she did everything to downplay her gender short of dressing herself in men's clothes. In a taped video, with no audience and no family members, she presented herself first and foremost as a senator and experienced Washington hand, ready to fight for Democratic goals and unintimidated by threats from the GOP.
"We will make history and remake our future," she said, but she left it to others to note that she was, by far, the most serious female candidate either party had considered sending forth as its contender for the White House.
In the long and difficult campaign that followed, the support Clinton enjoyed from other women was probably the single greatest source of her strength. Women staffed her campaign headquarters from her first victory in New Hampshire to her last one in South Dakota, and women provided most of the votes she received. Yet even as they rallied behind her, she steadfastly refused to cast her candidacy in gender terms.
Which made it all the more striking that last week, when her dogged challenge to Barack Obama finally came to an end, and she had to put it all in perspective, she defined her race - and its long-term influence - in such strikingly feminist terms.
"I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of," Clinton said. "I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter's future and a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows. To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers, and that women enjoy equal opportunities, equal pay and equal respect. Let us resolve and work toward achieving very simple propositions: There are no acceptable limits and there are no acceptable prejudices in the 21st century."
Seeking enlightenment on what had turned Clinton in this unexpected direction for her valedictory, I turned to Ann Lewis, the veteran Clinton political aide and longtime friend of hers.
"It's always who Hillary has been," she said, "but it became more important to acknowledge it explicitly, as she saw the reaction of her women supporters to the level of sexism and hostility to a woman running that was part of the standard media. We have achieved a lot, but we have to acknowledge what we've learned the hard way."
Lewis was referring to the list of grievances compiled by pro-Clinton women with some of the cable television, network and print journalists who covered the campaign. Like every other reporter on the hustings, I heard these complaints - and thought some were legitimate. For Clinton, apparently, it is important that they be acknowledged.
Being Clinton, the candidate is unbowed. She has not allowed herself to indulge the self-pity or voice the bitterness heard too often from her husband. She fell a couple hundred delegates short of wresting the nomination from Obama, but, she said, look at what she did achieve. If people still wonder, "'Could a woman really serve as commander in chief?' Well, I think we answered that one."
In the future, she said, "it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable."
It truly is. And whatever the fates have in store for this woman, in 2012 or any other year, it is certain that this campaign will be seen as a major step forward for her - and for other women. With Ted Kennedy's illness, she has no rival as the most influential Democrat on Capitol Hill. She came closer to breaking the White House barrier than any woman in history.
Some day, she or someone else will go all the way. Whoever that is will owe Clinton's 2008 run a huge debt.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.