Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has proved to be a divisive issue for feminists, specifically in terms of the generation gap. It is nothing, however, that the country has not dealt with before.
Bernie Sanders has garnered widespread support from young women in particular, to the dismay of many “second-wave” feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright. Clinton, meanwhile, appeals to older generations of women.
Eight years ago, the rivalry between Clinton and Obama revealed many of the same trends: while women Democrats over 30 tended to side with Clinton, young women rallied behind Obama in large numbers. Today, although the situation is admittedly different in countless ways, the pattern continues, with young women choosing Sanders and the older generation favoring Clinton.
Marion Just, a political science professor at Wellesley College, drew a connection from the generational divide among female voters in this to that of the 2008 election. Eight years ago, she was surprised to see widespread support for Obama across the all-female campus, showing a greater concern among young women for a candidate’s ability to actively enforce gender equality than for the candidate’s gender. Today, not surprisingly, this pattern continues.
In The Iowa entrance poll, for instance, Sanders amassed 84 percent of the votes of young people under thirty, while a mere 14 percent favored Clinton. Among those aged 30 to 44, Sanders remained the favorable candidate, surpassing Clinton 58 percent to 37 percent. Clinton beat Sanders 58 percent to 35 percent among voters aged 45–64, however, and 69 percent to 26 percent among those over 64.
Many established feminist leaders align with these statistics, typically showing staunch support for Clinton. Although this, in itself, is not necessarily problematic, their disparagement of Sanders enthusiasts has done nothing but harm. Pitting generations of feminists against one another will only weaken both sides.
Gloria Steinem, one of the most widely recognized feminist leaders, has frequently vocalized her distress at the younger generation’s lack of enthusiasm for Hillary, writing off young feminists’ support of Sanders as shallow and uninformed. Although she is, of course, entitled to her opinion, insulting the intelligence of young women seems, if nothing else, counterproductive.
Steinem, along with Madeleine Albright, introduced Clinton at a rally in New Hampshire. Albright essentially accused female Bernie supporters of disloyalty to their gender, declaring, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” (The New York Times, “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders,” 02.07.2016). And while I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, I do not believe that voting for Hillary Clinton is the best way to help women.
Steinem even went so far as to accuse young women of supporting Sanders in order to meet men. In an interview with talk show host Bill Meyer, she explained, “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie’” (The New York Times).
Both Steinem and Albright have received an outpouring of criticism on social media from women who find such rhetoric blatantly offensive to feminist Bernie supporters and to women in general. Many women have called them out for encouraging voters to choose Hillary solely based on her gender, and for undermining the intelligence of women who support Bernie.
In the face of ever-growing backlash, Steinem admitted that she had “misspoke[n],” apologizing for “what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics” (The New York Times).
Sure enough, in 2008, female Obama supporters received much of the same scorn from Steinem.
In a debate with Melissa Harris-Lacewell during the 2008 presidential race, Steinem urged Obama advocates to consider the limitations of another male president, arguing, “I think one learns a lot from parallels, and so it would be interesting to try to project what would have happened to Barack Obama…if he had been a female” (“Race and Gender in Presidential Politics: A Debate Between Gloria Steinem and Melissa Harris-Lacewell,” 01.14.2008). While this is a thought-provoking comparison, it does not necessarily establish Obama–or, eight years later, Sanders–as the less “feminist” choice.
Indisputably, Steinem has done immeasurable amount of good for feminism and for women. Her snide comments regarding Sanders supporters do not discount her years of activism, journalism and leadership. Her regard for young women whose opinions do not align with hers, however, needs to change.
Of course, the liberal voters cannot be divided cleanly into groups based on age and gender alone. As always, it’s more complicated than that. At this point in the race, however–especially in light of Steinem’s recent commentary–it is more crucial than ever to focus on closing the increasing divide between generations of liberal women.
Clinton herself has showed a greater willingness to reach out to young women voters during this election cycle than she did in 2008, which is certainly an improvement. Hopefully, her more scornful proponents will soon follow in her footsteps.
Similar to the disdainful commentary of staunch Clinton supporters, the “Bernie Bro” myth, concocted by pro-Clinton journalists, implies that a refusal to stand with Clinton has nothing to do with her politics, but is simply an act of sexism. Slate Magazine defines the “Bernie Bro” as a “white, male Bernie Sanders supporter who haunts the Internet comment section,” who has often “been spotted orchestrating pile-ons on Hillary Clinton’s Facebook page” (Slate Magazine, “Everyone is Wrong About the Bernie Bros,” 02.03.2016). Although it is necessary to address the underlying sexism of many of Clinton’s adversaries, aligning all Sanders supporters with uninformed, male, Clinton-bashing misogynists is not the way to do it.
The blind assumption that Bernie’s support is based mainly on sexism is not only inherently sexist itself, but also hurts feminism and everything it stands for.
That is not to say that sexism has not played a part in constructing the Clinton-Sanders dichotomy, or that Clinton deserves the intense, often petty scrutiny which she receives. There is certainly some level of discomfort with the fact that Clinton is a woman among many of her opposers, even those who consider themselves liberal.
Young, liberal women are not taking feminism’s victories for granted in their rejection of Clinton. On the contrary, they are taking responsibility for themselves and for the future of feminism. I have no doubt that the same women who wish to see Sanders in office today, like those who stood with Obama in 2008, are immensely appreciative of all that Gloria Steinem and her contemporaries have accomplished. The difference lies not in the two generations’ visions for the future, but the methods that they believe will get us to that point.
Clinton may make a more fitting figurehead for a progressive, feminist America, but, as I’m sure Steinem herself would agree, there are more important qualities to focus on in a leader than appearance and gender. Although electing Clinton would be symbolically significant, a Sanders presidency would be more beneficial for women in the long run.
Although, apparently, “the boys are with Bernie,” it is time to accept that women are too; and they are there not for “the boys,” but for themselves.