US Presidential race: the feminist generation gap

tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016, Bernie Sanders, women history, Womens History Month

Ruth Rosen is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, and Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Social Change. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America

Actually, it’s happened before. Each generation of feminists has redefined what they meant by feminism, often in reaction to their mothers’ feminist priorities.  After women won the vote in 1920, for example, young women who came of age in the 20’s and 30’s viewed suffragists - who had fought for 72 years for the vote - as dowdy matrons who wore sensible shoes. What thrilled them was the personal freedom to explore new sexual and social mores and the opportunity to forge new careers. 

When second-wave feminists revived the women’s movement in the late 1960’s, their redefinition of feminism strongly rejected their mother’s lives. Even if their own mothers worked outside the home, young feminists vilified the cultural symbol of the Feminine Mystique, which cast women as mere housewives who should stay at home and live through the identities of their husbands and children. 

What second-wave feminists achieved was monumental. The laws they passed, as well as the customs they changed, transformed the opportunities for a new generation of women. Young women know this, but like generations of before them, they are not particularly fired up by what their mother’s generation achieved almost half a century ago. 

Now, a new feminist generational gap is challenging the Democratic party’s unity the 2016 election. As the New York Times recently summarized, “The poll numbers and primary results so far tell a simple story: Younger Democratic women are mostly for Bernie Sanders; older women lean more toward Hillary Clinton.” Depending on the state or region, young feminists under 45 years of age are passionate supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the 74-year old self-identified socialist Senator from Vermont. In some states, they have given him 60-80 percent of the entire female Democratic vote. At the same time, women over 45 have demonstrated far greater enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.  

So why does a 73 year-old Senator from Vermont stir the passions of so many young feminists? When asked, they cite his radical platform - free tuition, a single payer health system, and a genuine disgust with the wealth inequality that has crushed their own dreams, as well as the lives of the poor and minorities. Many know that Republicans will never pass his legislative agenda. That is not the point. What matters is that they share his values and convictions, including his welcoming hand to refugees who seek safety in the United States. 


Senator Bernie Sanders. Photo: Jospeh Sohm/Shutterstock

Also important, Sanders does not remind them of their mothers, even though he could be their grandfather. 

For many young feminists, Hillary Clinton belongs to the past. She is a formerFirst Lady, a former Senator, a former candidate for President and a formerSecretary of State. Although she has spent a lifetime supporting gender equality, child care, wage equity, paid parental leave and famously redefined women’s rights as human rights in 1995, all this feels as old as their mothers’ tales of the Sixties. They are repelled by her ties to Wall Street and the fact that she supported the Iraq War. 

Some older women, moreover, have alienated Sanders’ young supporters by speaking about them with contempt. Madeleine Albright, 78, the first female secretary of state, told young women, “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done…“Well, It’s not done. And just remember that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”  Gloria Steinem, 81, a feminist icon, uncharacteristically dissed young women when she explained  that “younger women back Sanders just so they can meet young men.” (Both have since apologized but the damage lingers).

Young feminists, moreover have redefined what they mean by feminism. Jemma Soldati, a 25 year old who works in marketing and comedy, explains, “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. It’s putting the value of a female president over the value of a president with your values.” 

Liz Phillips, a 28 year-old editor and documentarian, wrote in an email, that “It is because of the battles that women like Madeline Albright fought, that I am now able to access the education, the information, and the experience needed in order to make informed decisions, but I will not be bullied by her recent vitriolic religious depictions of “a special place in hell.” 

Although she appreciates what older feminists achieved, she believes “that Sanders’ economic platform is the only one that has the capability to raise the quality of life for 99% of Americans. And I don’t want a president who will tell me that actually implementing these goals is impractical, because then all hope is truly lost.”  

Listen closely and you hear echoes of the Occupy movement, voices that publicized the economic distress of the 99 percent, and protesters who really do mean that “Black Lives Matters.” 

Sometimes the debates even among young women turn fierce.  At some colleges, Clinton supporters try to keep a low profile. “It’s like the tension you can often see between daughters and their mothers,” says Roxanne Euben, who teaches feminist political theory at Wellesley college. “Daughters are saying, ‘Just because you say this is what it means to be a committed feminist, doesn’t mean I’m going to do this.’” Euben further points out, quite accurately, “that the one consistent feature of feminism for the past century is that it’s always been up for debate.” 

Older women, some of whom are veterans of second-wave feminism, often agree (including myself) with the radical politics of these younger activists. But they also believe there is an important difference between movements and elections. Dreams fuel movements and challenge mainstream politics. Elections, on the other hand, consolidate what is possible, now, among the majority of Americans. Many older feminists remember the political results of their own idealism and dreams. When they voted for George McGovern, a liberal candidate, in 1972, he lost every state except Massachusetts and Richard Nixon retained the second term of his presidency. 

True, some older women simply want to elect the first female President and believe that Hillary Clinton, with so many decades of experience, has earned the right to govern. But other Clinton supporters have lived through years of discrimination at work, had children without child care, and fallen ill without health care. So they view Clinton as the perfect candidate who can advance the unfinished agenda of second-wave feminism.  


Former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Photo: Albert H Teich/Shutterstock

For them, electing this particular female president is not about identity politics, but an affirmation of a woman’s lifetime struggle to improve the lives of women and children, including the poor and minorities. No, she is not perfect, they will say. But at least she is experienced and electable. 

Unexpectedly, the primaries have publicized important differences among feminists. For younger women, Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on paid leave, universal kindergarten, health care and gender discrimination may not yet seem vital to their lives. Their redefined feminism also includes a struggle against wealth disparity, and an inclusive battle for social justice.  For older women, Hillary Clinton seems like the one candidate who can and will address the unfinished agenda of second-wave feminism. 

When the primaries are over, and Hillary Clinton - in all likelihood - wins the Democratic nomination, debates between young and older Democratic feminists may very well dissipate. Then the vital question is:  Will younger feminists give Hillary Clinton the kind of support that helped elect Barack Obama? Because that is what she needs in order to become the first woman to occupy the White House. 

Read entire article at Open Democracy