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Feminism’s fault lines: understanding young women’s support for Bernie

Peggy O'Donnell, Ph.D. candidate, history | February 12, 2016

This campaign season has been pretty bleak on the gender front, from Marco Rubio’s assurance that he understands rape victims’ “terrible situation,” but would insist on them carrying any resulting child regardless, to Trump’s “blood out of her…wherever” comment heard ’round the world.

Even so, last weekend stood out a new low for women, particularly for millennial women. At a rally on Saturday for Hillary Clinton in Manchester, N.H., Madeleine Albright scolded young women for betraying their elders.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (Marc Nozell photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” she said, referring to the fight for women’s equality. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

Clinton, standing next to her, doubled over in what looked like genuine, if shocked, laughter before recovering, taking a long drink of water and slowly shaking her head.

The night before Albright’s comment, the inimitable Gloria Steinem appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and gave her own assessment of millennial women. Maher asked the legendary feminist why young women don’t support Clinton in greater numbers.

“Women radicalize as they get older,” Steinem said, as “they lose power.” She went on,”When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.'” The studio audience, which had been cheering and clapping to this point, was silent. Maher nearly choked. “Oh. Now if I said that, ‘They’re for Bernie because that’s where the boys are,’ you’d swat me”

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright

I wish he were right, but I’m not sure. As a Ph.D. candidate who studies the recent history of rights, and as a millennial woman in the midst of my own late-20s feminist awakening, I was unsettled by how dismissive Steinem and Albright sounded about the possibility that young women who support Sanders could have any legitimate political reasons for doing so.

Their comments, or perhaps more accurately, the outrage their comments inspired among young women, reveal a striking generational divide with regards to women’s political priorities. What Steinem and Albright’s comments seem to miss is that, for many millennial women, economic issues may loom larger in their minds and lives than more traditional “women’s” issues. At the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, in 1995, Clinton gave a speech famously titled “women’s rights are human rights.” It is just as true that economic issues are women’s issues.

History is catching up with Steinem and Albright’s generation of feminists, and the landscape of women’s priorities has shifted under their feet. Since its inception, the feminist movement has willfully elided issues of race and class in its zeal to advance a clear-cut feminist agenda. In the late 1960s, radical feminists defined themselves against what they saw as the anti-feminism of the left, consciously privileging gender over other issues in a response to a leftist preoccupation with class and race.

Steinem tweet of apology

Gloria Steinem tweets an apology for talk-show comments.

They may have been sufficient into the 1990s, when America’s upward economic trajectory allowed for the argument that propping up women as such was good for all women, regardless of racial or economic difference. But since then we have seen the erosion of social protections, welfare in particular, the very programs the last President Clinton helped to erode.

The financial crash of 2008 was a defining moment of many millennials’ lives, women and men alike, arriving just as they were entering college or the professional world and profoundly redrawing the map of their future. In failing to account for why young women would support Sanders for economic reasons rather than Clinton for gendered ones, Steinem and Albright’s comments fail to acknowledge the part of recent history where capitalism failed people, young people and women in particular, whose Great Recession reality hardly matches their parents’ and grandparents’ upwardly mobile hopes.

And they miss the part of feminist history where the system women fought so hard to participate in—the same system that Clinton, with her financial ties to Wall Street, and Albright, a former board member on the New York Stock Exchange, do participate in—not only failed to deliver liberation and equality, but actually blew up in their faces.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

According to ABC exit polling, 82 percent of Democratic women under 30 voted for Sanders in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. If you believe Steinem, that means that there were a lot of boys at Bernie rallies in the Granite State, and a lot of not-yet-radicalized women thinking about their weekend social calendars instead of the future of their gender.

Or maybe young women are more radical than Steinem gives them credit for. Are we really to believe that Clinton, a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, is more radical than a wild-haired socialist from Vermont? In Thursday’s Democratic debate, Sanders shrugged off the notion that his candidacy would ruin the opportunity for America to have its first female president. “I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment, as well,” he said, to loud applause.

Perhaps Steinem and Albright’s comments sparked such an outcry because the historical moment for educated, white, well-off women to claim a uniquely oppressed status solely on the basis of their gender has long since passed. The power they fought for — the power to participate in professional and political settings on the same footing as men, or to build their own equivalents — may not be the power many millennial women value most. For many, non-white women, single mothers, and others who feel economic hardship, power comes with economic security. The more difficult truth for feminism is that wage equality isn’t enough if men and women alike don’t make a living wage.

Steinem and Albright may very well understand this. Their comments about young women may come from the frustration of realizing that structural and institutional change regarding women’s issues has not been complete, and that the younger generation of women has taken up a different mantle. And even they have reverted to the time honored tradition of blaming women’s problems on women; blaming them for failing to pull themselves up and fix their problems on their own.

But millennial women live in a different world than the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, one in which the most pressing issue in our lives does not have to be the fact that we are women. The idea that women are a composite, rather than a homogenous mass, has been a feminist fault line from the start, and the 2016 campaign may reveal just how far that fault has slipped.

[Editor’s note: In response, Robin Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics, penned this Open letter to Peggy O’Donnell on the Berkeley Blog, to which O’Donnell has responded in turn.]

Comments to “Feminism’s fault lines: understanding young women’s support for Bernie

  1. I’m an older white Jewish male who supports Sanders, because what he stands for is the direction I want society to go, and what Clinton stands for, not so much.

    But I’ve seen the videos of Steinem and Albright, and I find the berating they’ve received in the Clinton-supporting feminist press to be quite unfair. I’m responding to O’Donnell because she’s far more thoughtful than most, yet she misunderstands both.

    Prior to making her comment in answer to Maher’s question of why young women aren’t supporting Clinton, Steinem had already praised them for being far more activist than was typical of her generation at the same age (in other words, she made the point of her tweeted apology before even committing the original offense), and in that context she specifically noted that they place economic issues first. So she’s not unaware of the economic impetus that O’Donnell and others seek to lecture her on.

    In context, in seemed to me more than obvious that Steinem offered “where the boys are” as merely a subsidiary factor, a by-the-way contributing cause. Yet everyone I’ve read to criticize her except O’Donnell has claimed that Steinem said that young women support Sanders just to meet boys. She said nothing of the kind.

    As for Albright, again it’s obvious from the video. When she said “Just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” it was a joke. (Prefacing it with “Just remember” – which O’Donnell leaves out – helps communicate that.) It’s funny to translate women’s general need to help each other — surely O’Donnell wouldn’t deny that – into an obligation to support a particular woman candidate. And that’s why Clinton, and everyone else, laughed. Surely Albright wouldn’t be seriously arguing that women should have voted for Michele Bachmann or Margaret Thatcher?

    Generally it doesn’t help in understanding other people to misread their statements as something absurd and then spend your time scratching your head as to why they think that.

  2. Bernie Sanders radical socialist plans are absolutely goofy and it would be fascinating and revealing to read an explanation and defense of his unworkable-to-the-point-of-being-absurd economic ideas by “millennial women (who) live(s) in a different world than the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s.”

    And after that the millennial women explainers could continue on discuss why they have no problem with Bernie Sanders lack of knowledge and experience and wisdom in the critical area of foreign policy beginning with the Middle East.

    Yeah, Bernie Sanders has dreams nurtured in crunchy granola Vermont, but the United States and the world are vastly larger and more complex than he and his petulant millennial women supporters recognize and realize.

    Of course isn’t it just so horrible that Hillary Clinton is not perfect and that millennial women are going to have to work hard and move to where opportunity exists rather than complain about how all the good things in the established desirable locations are out of reach rather than dream about how Bernie can magically make reality bend to alternate reality fantasies which like a sugar-high makes immature millennial women happy for the moment.

  3. Ms O’Donnell’s article is the most insightful explanation that I’ve seen to date of how an ever-evolving feminism is being challenged by the realities of this year’s presidential contest. And my friend Sharon Page-Medrich’s comment adds an essential element to the discussion.

    The question of Bernie Sanders’ electability comes up again and again, but nobody seems to notice – or say – what ought to be obvious: he is electable, no doubt about it, because electability depends, in very large measure, on who your opponent is! In poll after poll Sanders handily beats all of the potential Republican nominees. His main opponent is, of course, is Hillary Clinton, but it’s also a misguided perception of unelectability.

    By the same logic she is also electable, but not inevitable. As more and more voters realize that not only does she not challenge the “rigged” power structure referred to above, but that she – in spite of her denials – is a willing servant of that power structure, her inevitability declines.

  4. I appreciate Ms. O’Donnell’s examination of the overlapping and divergent perspectives of supporters of Clinton and Sanders. As Professor Reich argues, the excesses of unchecked capitalism have changed the basic prospects for millennials; indeed, for all of us in the lower 98%. And economic strife, as history shows, tends to overshadow other crucial concerns (safeguarding women’s reproductive rights being especially salient).

    The sad fact is that the liberal feminism of Hillary Clinton et al never seriously confronted the premises of the “rigged” power structures that rest on class, race, and gender oppression. Mainstream feminism sought an equal place at the table for women, rather than seeking to dismantle the master’s house.

    At the same time, the significant gains won by generations of feminists since the 1960s can be depreciated by millennials only at their own peril. “A vast right wing conspiracy” (to borrow from Hillary in a different context) does aim to restore a chattel society, and even the limited inroads made against sexism and the other –isms hang in the balance.

    The challenge for all women and men who seek freedom from economic exploitation and societal discrimination, who seek equal access to opportunity and self-determination, is to complicate these discussions without dismissing anyone’s past struggles or present anxieties. Let’s avoid the temptation to “over-interpret” (to use Professor Lakoff’s term) criticisms on either side, and focus on our common project of threading the needle to knit up our unity against the complete unraveling of our rights.

    Is Sanders electable? I wish he were but fear he is not. But we can hope that the movement rallying behind Sanders can help to elect Clinton and then hold her accountable for leading deep reforms of the existing political and economic systems. Unfortunately, a more progressive, revolutionary outcome does not seem in the offing.

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