The Hillary paradox: How American women are struggling over feminism and Clintonism
Her election would be a ground-breaking moment for American feminism, the kind longed for by generations of women. But to many young female voters yearning for radical change, she's a symbol of the establishment they'd like to see overthrown, Joanna Slater reports
Photography by M. Scott Brauer for The Globe and Mail
This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.
Last spring, Clare Salerno was in a political-science seminar at Wellesley College when her professor pointed out the room's most famous object. Sitting on one of the book-lined shelves was a bound copy of the senior thesis written by Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, when she was a student there in 1969.
Ms. Salerno and her classmates were duly impressed. ("We thought it was pretty cool," she recalls.) For many students at Wellesley, a prestigious women's college, Ms. Clinton is an icon and an inspiration. Ms. Salerno, 19, immediately snapped a photo of the thesis and sent it to her mother and grandmother.
At the time, Ms. Clinton's bid for president was already in the air, and Ms. Salerno was looking forward to voting for her. Then, something unexpected happened: Along came Bernie Sanders, a rumpled Vermont grandfather talking about political revolution. Ms. Salerno found herself in full agreement with everything Mr. Sanders proposed.
Her mother, by contrast, is sticking with Ms. Clinton. The two don't discuss it much, but Ms. Salerno understands the frustration of older women who sometimes feel that her generation doesn't fully appreciate the ceiling-shattering importance of Ms. Clinton's candidacy. Still, she is adamant on one point: "Just voting for Hillary because she is a woman is not a feminist decision."
Hillary Clinton's bid to become president of the United States seeks to overturn close to 230 years of American history. Perhaps, then, it is little surprise that, as that goal draws nearer, the campaign is stoking a broader debate: What does it mean to be a feminist in the 21st century? How do the pull of race, class and gender operate in political decision-making? What are the different standards applied to women leaders?
These impassioned discussions are unfolding across the country, at kitchen tables, at gatherings of friends, over the telephone and via e-mail, as men and women alike grapple with a candidacy that is at once unprecedented and uncomfortably familiar. A fixture of national politics since the 1990s, Ms. Clinton is the only person to occupy the roles of First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.
Her campaign has embraced her role as a history-maker, hoping to sweep up young voters eager to break barriers. But the movement hasn't materialized. Instead, younger Democratic women – sometimes to the dismay of their mothers and grandmothers – have thrown their support behind Mr. Sanders, preferring his uncompromising authenticity to Ms. Clinton's hard-won pragmatism.
This week, Ms. Clinton carried seven of the 11 states that voted in the Super Tuesday primary contest, putting her on a glide path to win the party's nomination. But the voting also confirmed a trend apparent in earlier primaries and caucuses: In every case, she has failed to claim victory with voters under 30. That's a vulnerability if she hopes to replicate the coalitions assembled by Barack Obama, which featured a strong turnout by younger voters.
In a larger sense, the debate among women of different ages about Ms. Clinton and her candidacy gets to the paradox at the heart of her campaign: While she is a radical symbol, she is also an establishment candidate at a time when voters are yearning for change.
I. MILLENNIALS AND MEMORY
As the presidential candidates crisscross the country to make their final appeals to voters ahead of the Super Tuesday contests, Ms. Clinton, 68, arrives at a museum in Springfield, Mass. Behind her on the stage, directly in the sight of television cameras, there is a carefully curated selection of supporters – students, nurses, union workers.
Ms. Clinton takes the microphone to rapturous cheers, and inserts mentions of local landmarks into her stump speech. She campaigns in two registers: loud and rousing for calls to action and denunciations of opponents; calm and even for detailed discussions of policy.
One of those in the audience is Penny Peck, a 50-year-old veterinarian from nearby Hampden, who has cleared her morning appointments in order to see Ms. Clinton in person. She professes a small degree of exasperation with the younger women supporting Mr. Sanders. They "don't remember a time when it was different," Ms. Peck says. "I don't think they realize the hard work the generations before them did."
Her partner, Alicia Scott, 62, is also supporting Ms. Clinton. "Bernie really speaks to the idealism of young people who want to see a revolution," she says, then adds with a laugh: "When I was their age, I also wanted a revolution!"
Nearby stand Kathryn Mackenzie and Mychael Barnett, two young women from Springfield who have been best friends their entire lives. Ms. Mackenzie, 29, is a fan of Ms. Clinton; Ms. Barnett, 30, loves Mr. Sanders. "Wouldn't it be awesome to go from a competent president to a competent president?" says Ms. Mackenzie, contemplating a handoff from Mr. Obama to Ms. Clinton.
"And it would be so awesome to go from a black president to a woman president or a Jewish one," adds Ms. Barnett.
Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm, says that such attitudes represent a novel political phenomenon. Millennials are "the most tolerant cohort we've ever had in our country, by far," she says. What's more, "younger women and younger people in general do not think that we lack women's leadership as much as baby boomers do … Their change agenda is really around things like gay or transgender candidates."
Many older women, meanwhile, have waited their whole lives to be able to vote for a female candidate for president. "They've been through a lot of elections and they know the ideal candidate never comes along," says Susan Carroll, a political scientist and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Ms. Clinton "may not be the ideal candidate, but she's a good candidate."
"If Hillary wants to mobilize young people for the general election, she's going to have to make her campaign feel a little more like a movement and less like a campaign for an individual person," Prof. Carroll adds. "She needs to make them feel like they're part of something bigger."
II. FEMINIST WAVES AND GENERATIONAL DIVIDES
Over the course of about 24 hours last month, the generational divide between women burst into the open. Gloria Steinem, the feminist pioneer and icon, appeared on a late-night talk show and hypothesized that some young women were supporting Mr. Sanders because "the boys are with Bernie." Meanwhile, Madeleine Albright, a former U.S. secretary of state, spoke at a rally for Ms. Clinton and repeated a version of what has been her signature phrase for years: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't support each other."
Both Ms. Steinem and Ms. Albright apologized for their comments, but it was too late: Many younger women were appalled or annoyed, no matter which candidate they were supporting. ("It's so insulting. It's the same as your dad telling you to vote for someone, because you're a woman," a 26-year-old angrily told me at a rally for Mr. Sanders in a suburb of Boston.) Meanwhile, the media seized on the spectacle of a fight within the feminist fold.
As arguments between feminists go, this flap was relatively mild. Robyn Leigh Muncy, a professor of history and women's studies at the University of Maryland, notes that tensions between generations have flared up with regularity since the beginning of the feminist movement.
It's common to use the shorthand of successive "waves" to describe the progression of feminism (although scholars like Prof. Muncy say it's more complicated). The first wave began in the middle of the 19th century and culminated in 1920, when U.S. women finally won the right to vote. The second wave exploded into view in the 1960s with the publication of Betty Friedan's classic, The Feminine Mystique. It reshaped women's lives: The family, the workplace, sexuality and health all became the focus of years of intense activism.
At each stage, there have been frictions over tactics and emphasis, often along generational lines. A later, "third" wave of feminism, starting in the 1990s, sometimes broke with the previous generation on attitudes toward sex and pornography, and also reclaimed terminology once considered offensive (think Bitch Magazine).
"It's absolutely no surprise that there are going to be divisions even among self-identified feminists, much less among women generally, who have lots of interests, not just one," adds Prof. Muncy. But the current generation of feminists – as exemplified by her students and her daughter – fill her with hope.
"Their range of issues is just breathtaking – they're absolutely insistent on pay equity, legal equality and political representation. They're also really worried about transgender people who don't have a place to go to the bathroom," says Prof. Muncy, whose daughter is among those supporting Mr. Sanders.
Back at the student centre at Wellesley College, Ms. Salerno talks about how for her and her fellow students, the concept of "intersectionality" is critical to their understanding of feminism. In other words, it's the intersection of identities – race, class, sexuality – that shapes women's lives, not simply the fact of their shared gender.
For some of the young women, it is Mr. Sanders's fixation on issues of economic inequality that best tackles the complicated challenges different women face. "I kind of wish he weren't an older white man, but I'm not going to vote against him for that reason," says Ms. Salerno.
III. GENDER GAPS AND CLASS LINES
It's important not to overstate Ms. Clinton's deficit with Democratic women voters, which is limited to those under the age of 30. Aside from New Hampshire and Vermont, she has won the largest share of the women's vote in every primary so far.
Polls have consistently shown she has strong support among women 45 years old and older.
She also has fans among younger women. Ivy Onyeador, a 26-year-old graduate student in Los Angeles, says that at first she hesitated between Mr. Sanders and Ms. Clinton. Then she watched a debate between the two candidates. Mr. Sanders's relentless focus on economic inequality – a subject he managed to return to, even when asked about a different topic – struck her as "sort of surreal," she says.
"It reminded me of dudes in undergrad who didn't really do the reading but tied it back to whatever they knew."
Ms. Clinton, meanwhile, emphasized that the U.S. was not a single-issue nation, which resonated with Ms. Onyeador. "There has been this idea that older people support Hillary, so I feel like an old person," she laughs. "I don't have any energy for revolution without a plan."
Experts such as Ms. Lake, the pollster, and Prof. Carroll of Rut-gers note that, for Democratic politicians in particular, women voters hold the key to victory. They skew more Democratic overall, and every presidential election since 1980 has featured a "gender gap" – or a difference between the proportion of men and women voting for a particular candidate.
In each presidential election since 1988, the Democratic candidate has won a greater share of women's votes than the Republican candidate, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics. In the last two elections, Mr. Obama won the women's vote by 10 percentage points and 7 percentage points, respectively.
The Center's research has found that, overall, women are more likely than men to favour an activist role for government, to support programs that guarantee health care and social services, and to back access to abortion. Single women – an increasingly important category of voter that includes women who are unmarried, divorced and widowed – are especially inclined to support such stances.
When women candidates espouse these positions, they tend to get a little more of a boost than their male counterparts, says Prof. Carroll.
"Women want to vote for women, but they want to vote for a woman who shares their views and their policy positions."
For Jaimee Moccia, 28, from North Attleboro, Mass., those policy positions led her straight to Mr. Sanders. Her husband works a minimum-wage job unloading trucks, and their three-year-old son is autistic. They spend 80 per cent of their income on rent, and rely on food banks and other social services to make ends meet.
"Having a woman president would be great, but honestly, it's not a priority," says Ms. Moccia. "Bernie looks at us with compassion. We want to be able to live and make progress the way anybody else wants to."
For Mr. Sanders, however, winning the nomination is now almost impossible. Nearly all of his women supporters I spoke with over the past week said that they would switch their votes to Ms. Clinton, perhaps not with enthusiasm but with little hesitation.
IV. BEYOND HOPE AND CHANGE
Ms. Clinton still faces an uphill battle with younger voters, says Ms. Lake, the pollster. Once, young people were energized by Mr. Obama's message of hope and change. Now "they've lost hope and haven't seen change," she says.
"We could nominate [singer] Katy Perry, and we would still have to have a very aggressive get-out-the-vote program."
Ms. Lake predicts the Republican side will do some of the work for Ms. Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate. The rhetoric of Donald Trump is especially alienating for millennials, she notes.
Younger women, meanwhile, will get a closer look at Mr. Trump's long track record of sexist comments as the campaign unfolds. Two other potential Republican nominees – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are vehemently anti-abortion.
Ms. Clinton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But the candidate herself has acknowledged the challenge she faces. "I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people," she said after losing the New Hampshire primary to Mr. Sanders last month. Then she added: "Even if they are not supporting me now, I support them."
Joanna Slater is the U.S. business correspondent for The Globe and Mail.