Feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright are facing a wave of backlash for comments suggesting that women who support Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton need to smarten up. The rebuke has drawn the ire of journalists, political pundits, and scores of Sanders’ female supporters, some of whom have accused both women of undermining feminism. Now, according to a New York Times report, another one of Clinton’s surrogates is suggesting that Albright and Steinem be “kept away” from the campaign.
Do young women, as Albright implied, have an obligation to vote for Clinton? We asked Suzanna Walters, professor of sociology and director of Northeastern’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.
In her remarks at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire, Albright said that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” In your view, should women vote for Clinton—or any female candidate—based solely on their gender?
Of course not and no one is even remotely suggesting that. Albright was making off-the-cuff comments and offered up a bad joke that is simply becoming a tempest in a teapot. But what is so interesting to me is that we seem to only ask the question about “voting based on gender” or “playing the gender card” when a woman candidate (and woman voters) are being discussed. That is precisely one of the insidious ways sexism and double-standards work: no one seems to be asking about the “gender card” that we’ve been playing all the hundreds of years in voting for men. It’s just assumed, since men are the default human and therefore somehow not gendered, that we vote for men because of issues or values or whatever. The same dynamic plays out in questions of race: have we been asking if people voted for whiteness all these hundreds or years or did we only ask about voting around race when Obama was the candidate? So it’s just an accident that only men have been presidents of the United States? And that, until Obama, only white men?
In your cover story for The Nation, titled “Why This Socialist Feminist Is For Hillary,” you compare President Barack Obama’s calls for racial justice in the U.S. to Clinton’s potential to bring sexism out into the open. What effect would a woman in the White House have on gender equity?
Well, again, we’re not talking about any woman here. Having a Carly Fiorina or a, heaven forbid, Sarah Palin in the White House would set all women back of course, because their agendas are firmly and unequivocally anti-feminist. But having a woman—a feminist who has devoted much of her life and political energy to gender equity—occupy the White House would have both practical effects (e.g. strengthening reproductive rights and health care access more generally, taking on the scourge of sexual and domestic violence, raising the minimum wage, working to push back against climate change) and of course symbolic effects. But symbols are never “merely” symbols—they resonate and impact in ways that are complicated and multigenerational. I do think a feminist woman fighting for, say, pay equity or reproductive freedom brings something different to the table than a man, even a male feminist. Just as Obama’s engagement in discourses around racial discrimination and profiling mattered in profound ways, so too would Clinton’s engagement in discourses around gender discrimination speak volumes to women around the world. This is one reason why—here in the academy—we make arguments for robust inclusion and diversity. An all-white, all-male university is not only not representative but in fact, in a positive sense, we all as a community really do benefit from a more diverse set of faces and voices and lived experiences.
A recent poll of Democratic voters in New Hampshire found that 64 percent of women under the age of 45 supported Sanders while only 35 percent backed Clinton. Why is Clinton struggling to attract young female voters?
I’m not sure she is struggling quite as much as the media claim. I do think—in a media culture that frames every debate or difference in terms of a battle—the narrative being spun is of young women rejecting en mass the arguments and ideologies and candidates of older women. So I do think we need to take this with a grain of salt and see how this all develops in other states and other primaries. But I also think the Sanders excitement is real and women—of all ages—are justly excited about someone who seems to be offering such a thoroughgoing critique of the system. And Sanders is—although a lifelong politician—fairly new and unknown to most folks, particularly young folks just entering political life, and Hillary is a known quantity, and moreover a known quantity who has been demonized and vilified like few political figures in my lifetime. So I don’t find the Sanders allure all that mystifying: he speaks to the hunger for real change, the resentment of growing wealth inequality, and the dismay at the way elections are funded by wealthy donors. Clinton speaks to much of this as well of course, but she enters this arena with all the baggage of her years in the public eye and, of course, is never able to exist outside of the routinized, pervasive, everyday sexism and double-standards that await all women.