A woman in the White House isn’t the change radical feminists want in 2016

Men can be feminists, too.
Men can be feminists, too.
Image: Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich
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A woman’s face on the $10 dollar bill. A female commander-in-chief. The ability to point to an example when we say to young girls, “You can be president of the United States, too.” These are among the things almost all feminists want—voting Hillary Clinton into the White House in 2016, however, is not.

“A woman winning the presidency would be a beautiful moment for all the feminists out there, but I just do not think that Hillary is the right woman,” Dr. Heather Gautney, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, tells Quartz.

Gautney, whose research focuses on social movements and inequality, is a self-identified feminist and Bernie Sanders supporter. She believes Sanders is the candidate who is most likely to improve the lives of the greatest number of women in the US—largely through economic and health care reform. And a number of feminists who consider income inequality to be the biggest issue facing women and other marginalized communities feel the same way.

“Hillary is the right woman for certain kinds of women on the upper end of the income scale, and that’s why Planned Parenthood and other women are rallying around her—and I understand that—but these women want a winner in the short run. Bernie’s focused on the long run,” Gautney says.

The fact that some radical feminists are siding with Sanders might seem surprising, given his seeming inability to talk candidly about women’s issues on the campaign trail. Clinton, meanwhile, has done a successful job of marketing herself as the women’s candidate in 2016. Most notably, she has vocally championed reproductive rights and discussed the importance of closing the gender wage gap. She has even recruited big-name feminists like Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham to rally around her cause. This—and the fact that she is a woman—has made it almost impossible for Sanders to outplay Clinton on women’s issues in his campaign.

Polling consistently shows that men make up the majority of Sanders’ supporters. A Gallup poll released Jan. 15 that found support for Sanders rose nine percentage points among both men and women since the end of Nov. 2015 suggests that this hasn’t changed. But Sanders has also consistently polled better with younger liberal voters, who tend to be more progressive. The same poll shows he has the support of 58% of this 18-29 year-old subset, while Clinton has only 35%.

And for feminists who see economic and gender equality as issues that are inextricably intertwined, Sanders’ platform beats Clinton’s hands-down.

“The things that are important to me are, yes, gender—that plays a role—but also sexuality, income inequality, and educational opportunities,” Becky Alfaro, a 27-year-old feminist blogger, tells Quartz.

Alfaro, who identifies as an intersectional feminist on her blog “Modes of Expression”, says that Sanders’ campaign addresses the myriad issues that matter to her—including, but not limited to, reproductive rights and the wage gap.

“My income affects the amount of control I have over my body,” she tells Quartz. “I think that in that way, economic reform can be all-inclusive.”

Sanders’ campaign has so far been largely focused on economic inequality. But the issue disproportionately affects women in the US. A report by the Government Accountability Office published in 2011 found that women constituted 59% of the low-wage workforce and that households led by single women have the lowest total annual income of all households, averaging about $27,000.  In that sense, Sanders’ plan to increase the amount of government aid to all low-wage earners in the US would help more women than men, without addressing a “women’s issue” explicitly.

“If you solve the wage problem in general, then you’ve solved a gender issue,” Gautney tells Quartz. “Hillary’s minimum wage is three dollars below Bernie’s, and women account for more than half of minimum wage workers. Tipped workers stand to get a raise too, and women make up 70% of tipped workers.”

Likewise, Sanders’ proposal to implement single payer health care would disproportionately benefit women.

“Women pay more money to acquire healthcare, and we pay more money out-of-pocket for medical costs. Bernie’s talking about healthcare overall, but he’s really talking about women,” Gautney tells Quartz.

“That’s what we need,” Gautney says. “We need policies that don’t allow people to be poor.”

Clinton has used the utopian nature of Sanders’ campaign against him in recent weeks, framing herself as a pragmatist who will get things done. But his uncompromising attitude is exactly what makes him attractive to women like Gautney and Alfaro.

“I’m an idealist,” Alfaro tells Quartz. “I vetted him quite a bit, and I trust him to do the most with my vote.”

Alyssa Peterson, a 23-year-old Sanders supporter who works in policy in Washington, DC, says she isn’t convinced that Sanders could accomplish all—or even most—of what he has promised. Even so, she thinks he will fight harder than Hillary to promote economic equality in the US.

“I feel that Bernie is the candidate who would do the most, if elected, to protect core programs like Social Security from cuts,” Peterson tells Quartz. “And I am the most enthusiastic about Sanders’ vision being the one enacted through the executive branch.”

While Sanders may be criticized for promising too much, many women who support him feel that Clinton isn’t promising enough. Clinton has recently made an effort to cast her potential presidency as the logical extension of president Barack Obama’s, insinuating that she would be content to make incremental changes rather than overhaul any programs, as Sanders has said he would do. The endorsements Clinton received last week from Democratic lobbying groups Planned Parenthood and Human Rights Campaign further bolster her image as the candidate most aligned with the traditional Democratic party. Sanders was quick to suggest that the organization’s endorsements were indicative of Clinton’s complicity with the status quo, calling the advocacy groups part of the “establishment.”

Feminists lashed out at Sanders’ characterization of the organizations, accusing him of devaluing the work of Planned Parenthood by calling it the dirtiest word in feminism (second only to “patriarchy”, perhaps). It’s worth noting that much of Planned Parenthood’s work is actually bipartisan, such as the healthcare it provides to women, and Sanders has since tried to walk back the statement.

But Sanders’ comments have touched a nerve. Perhaps because Clinton is not a feminist in the radical sense of the word. She does not speak of changing the system on the scale that Sanders does, and, counterintuitive as it is, (another) Clinton in the White House would do less to dismantle the patriarchy than would a straight, white senator from Vermont.

“I deeply respect Planned Parenthood and the services they provide,” Peterson tells Quartz. That said, the Vermont senator’s comments haven’t swayed her support: “Bernie is committed to being transformative in politics.”