the feminist vote: clinton vs sanders
Since the time of Julius Caesar, politics has had the profound ability to polarise the members of a community. Even in our relatively peaceful contemporary era, allegiant political supporters have their back-stabbing daggers at the ready – and for much less than the subjugation of the Roman Republic. In the months leading up to the hotly contested United States Presidential race, we can expect nothing less than the daily deluge of back-handed smears to which we have become accustomed (even without the esteemed input of Donald Trump). A notable quotable comes from women’s right activist and 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Gloria Steinem.
In an interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, Steinem, a Hillary Clinton supporter, suggested that female volunteers with the Bernie Sanders campaign were only engaging in his politics to meet men. This surprising statement from such a revered feminist icon infuriated women across the nation. Steinem stated: ‘[Women] are going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think: “Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’’’
Understandably, there was a considerable reaction against this statement by many female Sanders supporters. Moumita Ahmed, a 25-year-old leader of the Millennials for Bernie movement, says Steinem’s statement was ‘the worst kind of sweeping generalisation’ she’s heard recently about her peers. ‘I was hurt because I consider her to be an icon of the feminist movement,’ Ahmed said. ‘I identify as a feminist,’ she continued. ‘I’m not sure how she could admit us young women are graduating with more debt and earning less money, then say young women are supporting Bernie Sanders to impress all the boys.’
It is at this point that I should express my conflict of interest in penning this article. I am currently writing this from the Bernie Sanders 2016 Nevada Headquarters, and am a twenty-something woman volunteering for the campaign. Having heard Steinem express her opinion on my political engagement, I felt equally victimised by her reductive generalisation. However, despite my emotional reaction to all this, I have been motivated to conduct as judicious an assessment as possible of which candidate truly holds women’s issues in the highest regard. As supportive as I am of women succeeding in politics and receiving well-deserved positions of power, it has distressed me that so many of the people I have engaged regarding the Democratic nomination are basing their votes solely on the gender of their preferred candidate. So here it is, the unsolicited opinion of an Australian woman discovering the ins and outs of the American political process: Senator Bernie Sanders is without doubt championing the importance of feminist issues, and giving the self-proclaimed ‘women’s candidate’ a serious run for her money on the very platform that has sustained her popular candidacy.
It was not so long ago that Hillary Clinton was basking in the warm glow of her status as a feminist icon among young women who adoringly applauded her tough resilience to political attack, the use of her platform to advance the cause of working women, and even her trademark pantsuits. But now, when Clinton needs that support the most, much of her backing among women of the millennial generation has dissipated. The persona cultivated by Clinton’s campaign – that of a refreshingly progressive yet approachable grandmother of one – isn’t sticking. In Iowa last week, women 29-years-old and younger voted for Senator Sanders by a stunning margin of roughly 6 to 1, according to the poll of voters conducted for the Associated Press. Furthermore, in advance of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, polls showed Sanders holding the support of a majority of young women there, as well – a sharp contrast to Clinton’s dominance among women closer to her own age.
The problem for Clinton here is not a rejection of feminism – surveys suggest millennial women are the most staunchly feminist group of voters in America. This demographic want to see a woman in the White House. This does not necessarily mean it must be this woman. Though Clinton continuously emphasises her strong stance on feminist issues, voters need only conduct a cursory Google search to discover that Sanders appears to be leading on many important issues that affect women across the nation. So let’s consider the facts…
Bernie Sanders has consistently fought against Republican attacks on the reproductive rights of women and has stated that, should he be elected President, he would increase funding for Planned Parenthood. He’s vowed to only nominate Supreme Court justices who uphold Roe v. Wade (a historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court stipulating that a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion). Sanders plans to expand women’s health programs, and access to safe and legal abortions. On the other hand, Clinton has also been out front on reproductive rights, but her historic and oft-repeated refrain that abortion be ‘safe, legal, and rare’ appears to have only served to stigmatise the issue further and justify conservative efforts to impose legal restrictions; a by-product of her moderate leaning.
On the issue of families, Sanders has often pointed out that of 178 countries worldwide, the US is one of only three that does not provide new mothers with paid leave. He argues for a Scandinavian model, where family leave is part of a robust system of social safety nets. As President, he claims he would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave, funded with a small payroll contribution, so that both mothers and fathers have the ability to bond with their newborns, and family members care for sick relatives. He would also free millions of women from the struggle to secure childcare by making high-quality services and preschool available to all Americans, regardless of income. The Clinton campaign has made family leave a centerpiece of its platform, however the candidate’s level of enthusiasm is not encouraging. Just last year she openly admitted to CNN, ‘I don’t think, politically, we could get it now’, showing hesitation in the face of her otherwise enthusiastic feminist platform.
Finally, in terms of income, it is a well known and long-abhorred fact that women in the United States make only a fraction of what men earn (78 cents on the dollar), and the numbers are even worse for women of colour. Even women in labour unions, who enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and workplace regulation, get only 88 cents to a man’s dollar. Senator Sanders has said that upon his election, he would sign the Paycheck Fairness Act to end wage discrimination based on gender, and runs staunchly on the platform to increase the minimum wage to $15. Hillary Clinton supports a $15 minimum, but only in her home state of New York… she’s offering just $12 for everyone else.
Sanders himself neatly sums up the argument against Hillary’s one-dimensional popularity among feminist voters, admitting that he does ‘understand there is a desire on the part of many women—perfectly understandable—to see a woman being elected President’. ‘We all want to see that,’ Sanders noted in an interview with The Washington Post in September. ‘We want to see women hold more political offices. But I also would hope that, in these enormously difficult times, where it is absolutely imperative that we stand up to the billionaire class, bring our people together, to fight for a progressive agenda, that all people – women – look at that candidate who has the record to do that.’