clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why younger women love Bernie Sanders, and why it drives older women crazy

A Bernie Sanders supporter waits for the Democratic presidential candidate's New Hampshire primary night watch party to begin February 9, 2016, in Concord, New Hampshire.
A Bernie Sanders supporter waits for the Democratic presidential candidate's New Hampshire primary night watch party to begin February 9, 2016, in Concord, New Hampshire.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The war of late-night feminist hot takes captures perfectly the state of the generational divide among liberal women.

On one side there is Gloria Steinem, who said on Real Time With Bill Maher that the girls are only with Bernie because "that's where the boys are."

Then there's Jessica Williams of The Daily Show on the other side, delivering an equally strong sarcastic counterpunch: "I literally vote with my vagina. They are like third hands!"

One way to look at this dispute is to see this fight as a symptom of a deep-seated feud with roots in feminist theory. But there's also a simpler way to look at it. Some people feel, strongly, that supporting the first woman president is an important feminist act. Others feel, strongly, that supporting the biggest backer of the social safety net is an important feminist act.

As Clinton herself once articulated in an interview with BuzzFeed, she has become "a kind of Rorschach test to so many people." One generation of women sees a transformative figure whom they should support on an identity level. Another generation sees her as the less liberal of two candidates.

Unfortunately, these two sides don't seem to hear each other, so we're watching an old fight play out all over again.

The case older feminists might make for Hillary Clinton

Just before Steinem quipped on Bill Maher about young women and the Bernie boys, she actually articulated her generation's case for Hillary Clinton.

"Women get more radical as they get older," she said, explaining that men tend to become more conservative with age, as they gain more power, and women tend to become more radical as they lose power.

This pretty aptly exposes how older feminists think about the movement. For the women who went toe to toe with the structures of male power in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, they see an inherent conflict between women trying to gain power and the men in power. Women have to support each other because men, whether they mean to or not, wind up reinforcing the old structures of power.

Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state, echoed this sentiment in her introduction of Clinton at a campaign event this weekend. "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other," she said, repeating a famous line of hers — which actually originally wasn't about Hillary Clinton at all but rather women in the workplace generally. There are so few opportunities for women, she seems to be saying, that we can't take women out of the running over petty differences.

Hillary Clinton has to be more careful than her male opponents, this older generation says, because, as Barack Obama noted with his Ginger Rogers reference in a recent interview, she has had to do the same thing as them, but "backwards in heels."

In many ways, this movement sees itself the way Clinton has sold her candidacy: one of hard-fought victories that are at risk of sliding backward. For second wave feminists, Hillary Clinton is the best shot at defending Roe v. Wade, achieving a more liberal balance on the Supreme Court, and finally advancing feminist causes like paid family leave.

This urgency that women should support Clinton so she can defend causes can come across as condescending to young women. A great example of this was when Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with the New York Times, "Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided."

And for women like Steinem, who has been fighting for feminism her whole life and just turned 81, this may well be their last chance to see a women elected to office. As Steinem quipped on Maher's show, "Most people my age are dead."

The case younger feminists might make against Hillary Clinton

Meanwhile, young women are going for Clinton's rival, Bernie Sanders, by an overwhelming margin. To older feminists, this might feel like something of a betrayal. To younger feminists, voting for a man who offers policies that help people — especially women — is not a rejection of feminism. It's also feminism.

Younger feminists do care about putting a woman in the White House someday, but they also care about fighting racism, reforming immigration policy, and — perhaps this is why Sanders's message is resonating so much with young voters — leveling the economic playing field for all. Elizabeth Bruenig has a good roundup of why these economic messages might resonate more with younger women voters.

But for young women, pushing Clinton, a candidate they feel lukewarm at best about due to her long history in public life, feels like voting for a woman for the sake of it. This was perhaps best depicted by a New York Times story about the rift between a Clinton supporter and the supporter's 19-year-old daughter:

But for her daughter, electing a woman, while a nice idea, is not a motivating factor. "I want to see someone who, like, has the fervor to fight for me," Anna Schierenbeck said. A woman will be elected president "pretty soon" anyway, she said, regardless of what happens in 2016. Why does that woman have to be Mrs. Clinton?

Sanders has repeatedly downplayed identity politics in his campaign, focusing instead on economic issues. As young feminists point out, raising the minimum wage will help a lot of women. Reforming policing and criminal justice will do a lot for women of color who face the reality of cops assuming their children are up to no good. They hear Sanders speaking to these broader progressive issues, and they think this is the kind of party they want to be a part of, not a relic of a previous generation's priorities.

Clinton, meanwhile has made it a central part of her candidacy, arguing that she's the "ultimate outsider" candidate for a job that thus far has been held only by men. But younger feminists don't always see men as inherent enemies. For them, men can be potential allies, even if they often engage in eye-rolling behavior like "mansplaining." They see the clueless "not all men" behavior as something to be eradicated with education, not something over which to wage war. Writer Lindy West's heart-wrenching conversation with one of her most vicious trolls, in which he finally recognizes the harm he did to her, gives young women hope that things can change.

In other words, Sanders's more optimistic vision of the future might hold some of the appeal rather than Clinton's defense-oriented one.

The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander made the case that black Americans shouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton because of the policies Bill Clinton supported in the 1990s, which have caused incredible harm to black communities. Older feminists might counter, even if Hillary objected, did she really have a choice other than to support her husband?

This fight has been happening for a long time, but especially flared up in 2008

The thing is, this fight between two generations is old. And it especially flared the last time Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic nomination.

I remember sitting in a room when Helen Thomas, another glass ceiling buster, said during the Q&A after a speech that there was value in voting for Hillary Clinton simply because she was a woman. We could take Barack Obama's success to mean that it is, in fact, harder for women than it is for men of color.

A couple months later, Steinem herself expressed this idea in a New York Times op-ed titled, "Women Are Never Front-Runners." She wrote:

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects "only" the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more "masculine" for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no "right" way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

Many women of color pushed back on this point, arguing that they resented having to choose between two equally important parts of their identities. At the time, Pamela Merritt, who wrote a blog called Angry Black Bitch, articulated this well:

"I am a proud black feminist who holds a deep respect for feminist leaders and has done a lot of inner work to come to terms with feminism's history with race and class. But there it is again, that invisibility, like a brutal weight that I am so bloody tired of carrying," she said in an interview with NPR. "[Steinem's] article is soaked in the fluid of competition. It reeks of frustration that I fear is born from a place of entitlement, even though it is dressed in the language of oppression."

The whole thing became an exhausting parody of oppression olympics — the spiraling back-and-forth was exhausting.

What does that mean now?

It's difficult to see how these generational divides will be reconciled. One of the candidates finally winning the nomination will put the argument to rest. At least temporarily.

And as ugly as the primary fight is getting, no matter who emerges victorious this time around, both candidates are indicating they look forward to working with the other once this fight is over. There will be a Democratic nominee, and then the question will be about the differences between the two parties in how they tackle issues of feminism, race, sexuality, and class — not within the parties.

Until then, each side will firmly stake out their position as we march through the primary season. Ultimately, the voters will decide who wins the argument.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.