Why young women reject Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminism

How can Hillary appeal to young women?
How can Hillary appeal to young women?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Gemma Soldati, a 25-year-old who works in marketing and is a comedian, posted an open letter to her parents on Facebook. “Dear Mother & Father, I’ve studied at your school for 25 years,” she starts.

She goes on to say that her parents took her to anti-war rallies, taught her that “equality is more important than security,” that “it was cool to vote for Ralph Nader,” and “that women should never be under anyone’s thumb.”

She ends her long list of lessons from her parents with a series of questions:

“So, why are you voting for Hillary Clinton?

Did I miss a lesson?

Did I miss the part where resistance got confused with idealism, where practicality trumps values and where identity politics outweigh revolutionary idea?”

Soldati, a Bernie Sanders supporter, is part of a generation of young, liberal women, who do not see Clinton as “their” candidate, who say they will vote for a woman, but only when the right one comes along.

“When my mother says she’s going to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, to me that is identity politics at its worst,” Soldati tells Quartz. “It’s putting the value of a female president over the value of a president with your values.”

Instead of joining the ranks of some older feminists who are eager to see a female president for the first time in the US, these young women are opting en masse for Sanders, a candidate who captures their imagination with his promises of political revolution. He swept their vote in the Iowa caucuses, winning the support of 84% of women under 30, and in the New Hampshire primary, where he beat Clinton by nearly 60 points in the same demographic, according to exit polls. In Nevada, despite Clinton’s comfortable win, young voters (a gender breakdown was unavailable) continued to turn out for Sanders, giving him 82% of their votes.

Already, this election’s Democratic nomination process is showing that women cannot be treated as a distinct voting block, as Hillary Clinton’s candidacy brings an intergenerational feminist schism into public view. While many older women are thrilled to see a woman having a shot at the presidency during their lifetime, for many younger women, gender matters less. For them, “women’s issues,” as they’re classically defined, are taking a back seat to a much broader understanding of the term.

Why young women refuse to vote “gender first”

In a widely discussed incident in February, Madeleine Albright, 78, the first female US secretary of state,  said at a rally for Hillary Clinton: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” It’s a phrase Albright has used many times before, but this time it struck an especially negative chord. Young women were insulted. (Albright has since apologized)

Tayarisha Poe, a 25-year-old African-American photographer and filmmaker from Philadelphia, says voting “gender first,” is “asking people to separate themselves from their other identities.”

“If you’re asking me to put my gender first, you’re asking me to ignore my sexuality. If you’re asking me to put my gender first, you’re asking to ignore my race,” Poe, a former classmate of mine, says. “How can you ask me to separate them from each other when all of those things work together to create one person?”

Poe is describing what many of the Sanders voters see as their version of feminism. It connects multiple forms of discrimination, like sexism and racism, and talks about how they work together, something that’s referred to as “intersectional” feminism.  This more layered understanding of identity puts young women at odds with Clinton, Albright and Gloria Steinem. They see their older peers as representatives of a now outdated second wave of feminism, one that has its roots in the 1960s and 70s.  

Lianna Schwartz-Orbach, 27, who works in a biology lab in New York City, thinks Clinton’s brand of feminism is “based on being a middle-class white women.” This archetypal middle class white woman is focused on making progress within the current system. Today’s brand of young feminists wants to disrupt it.

“Feminism to me is a dismantling of power structures based on gender, race, class, sexuality, disability,” says Schwartz-Orbach.

And as far as they’re concerned, Clinton stands at the apex of the establishment pyramid, one that is entrenched in the power politics of Washington, far removed from the average young American. She’s just another politician, and that class as a whole should not be trusted.

“I think that youth in this country, particularly young women, women of color deserve more than just the current establishment has been providing for years and I think Hillary Clinton really represents that establishment,” says Varshini Prakash, 22, a climate justice organizer from Boston. 

 “I don’t see her being a woman in charge affecting in a positive way a lot of the women who I know,” adds Poe.

The changing nature of “women’s issues”

Hillary fans say that having a woman at the helm in the White House would provide much stronger support for policies that are critical for women, like equal pay, paid maternity and family leave, universal child care, and reproductive rights.

Clinton supporter Emily Crofoot, a 24-year-old who works at a reproductive rights non-profit organization in Washington DC,  finds herself in a minority among her liberal-minded friends. (Her boyfriend also supports Sanders). Referring to her generation, she says that “they kind of assume that abortion rights will always be there, but they won’t be. You clearly have to fight for it.”

Clinton has a longstanding pro-choice record. For years she has been vocal about repealing the Hyde Amendment, for example, a federal law that makes it very hard for poor women to get an abortion.

 Young women grew up in a different world than that of Clinton’s generation. Society pressures them less to get married or have children, the gender pay gap among their peers is 93%— far smaller than for the overall population, notes Rebecca Traister, author of a new book about the political power of unmarried women, “All The Single Ladies.” Naturally, they focus on different battles than those that have defined the feminist fight throughout Clinton’s political career.

They’re also at a different stage in their lives. Joanne Bamberger, author of “Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox,” who is in her fifties, says it’s understandable that younger women don’t focus on issues such as equal pay or paid family leave. “Those things were not on my radar when I was in the 18-30 demographic,” she says. “I wonder if we at all change in terms of which issues we focus on and which issues we think are particularly important…as we get older and experience different things?”

What young women vote on

The young women choosing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton identify a wide variety of issues that weigh on their election choices: economic equality, finance reform, racial justice and criminal justice, climate change, foreign policy, education. This isn’t to say they don’t care about advancing women’s rights–they just define them much more broadly.  

The effects of climate change such as drought and famine disproportionately affect poor people, women of color and the global south, says Prakash. “Women are disproportionately hit by issues like the financial crisis, by not having a minimum wage.” (More than half of minimum wage workers are women). For her, “women’s issues” are inextricably wrapped in all of these other problems.

For Schwartz-Orbach, and several of the other women I spoke to, Bernie Sanders, with his platform of economic and social justice, simply connects more deeply with their multi-layered concerns, (though it should be noted that Clinton gained 76% of the black vote in Nevada and recently received some powerful endorsements from black women). Coming of age during the Obama presidency—and the 2008 financial crisis—has raised the bar for the country’s next leader, and the Sanders candidacy sparked hope of pushing forward the progressive agenda. “We are now willing now to look past just being the ‘first,’” says Poe. “It has to be about more.”

Clinton also has more baggage to weigh her down in these young women’s eyes: her support for the war in Iraq, for example, an “extremely influential” moment in their political coming of age, or her ties with Wall Street and support for fracking. Clinton’s financial backing from the private prison industry, a much maligned element of America’s mass incarceration problem, is also a recurring theme.  (Clinton stopped accepting contributions from the industry in late 2015).

Nae nae is a no no

There’s also Clinton’s “authenticity” problem. Fairly or not, polls show she continues to be dinged on her “trustworthiness” and “honesty,” where Sanders dominates.

There have been at least a couple of moments where Clinton’s presumably been making an effort to show she’s relatable, that end up coming off as disingenuous.I don’t want someone who is doing the nae nae, I don’t care if you can dance,” says Poe, referring to Clinton’s appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show. “Don’t try to fit in. We just want to know who you are and what you’re about but we see so clearly that you’re trying to be with it.”

Her campaign portraying her as “abuela” also left many with a bad taste. “That moment of ‘Hispandering,’ when paired with her pretty intense support of stronger border patrol and physical barriers against Mexico, is a seriously transparent instance of playing politician instead of offering genuine support,” says Michelle Funk, 25, a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri’s Department of Communication.

Clinton gets criticized for her attempts at being more “relatable,” which can seem calculated, but she’s also bashed when she is focusing on the issues—for being too distant, and failing to inspire. Supporters see a double standard.

Bamberger, who is voting for Clinton, says she wishes her candidate would “go with her gut.” She thinks Clinton should talk about her accomplishments in the realm of promoting programs designed to economically empower women and girls around the world during her tenure as secretary of state. “If she could find a way to really talk about that, that could really connect with the voters who relate to income inequality.”

As candidates do, Clinton has already started adjusting her message to young voters, and young women in particular. “The question, in this year of the single woman, is whether the first truly plausible female presidential candidate can recognize how much her constituency has changed and capitalize on these changes, or if she will get overtaken by this growing group of independent women voters,” writes Traister.

But if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she needn’t worry too much. Nearly all of the women I spoke to say they would vote for her come next November: She’s still better than any Republican.