Heading into New Hampshire, few people would have thought that feminism -- not foreign policy -- would dominate the Democratic race. Yet while Hillary Clinton tried to put the heat under Senator Bernie Sanders at the debate this past weekend, implying that the Vermont independent doesn't have the national security chops necessary to sit in the Oval, it was Clinton's defense of two separate missteps by two feminist powerhouses, who should both know better, that really got people talking.
Gloria Steinem has already apologized for her gaffe on Bill Maher's show Friday for saying women get "more activist as they grow older. And when you're younger, you think: 'Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie." It was a foolish thing to say, and Steinem -- so often a figure women look to for leadership -- did herself an injustice. It's precisely because of contributions Steinem (among others) made to the women's rights movement that women like me today can exercise choice independent from men. Yet her words, despite her apology, have caused younger feminist thinkers to seriously question her understanding of their struggle today. These are the same feminist thinkers already questioning whether Hillary Clinton speaks to, and for, them. And that's really at the heart of what Steinem was clumsily attempting to explain away -- the question of why Hillary has been performing so poorly among younger female millennials.
According to a survey by CNN-WMUR, Sanders is ahead of Clinton amongst female would-be voters in New Hampshire by eight percentage points. Look in the rear view mirror, and you see that in the Iowa caucuses Clinton maintained a lead amongst women by 11 points. It's wrong to say that she's "lost them." It would, however, be foolhardy to say Clinton hasn't got a battle on her hands to capture the hearts and minds of millennials who are galvanized by the Vermont senator's zealous brand of left-wing politics. (The recent battle over the word "progressive" shows just how sensitive both candidates are about appearing in line with "real" liberals.)
There's a school of thought that Hillary Clinton's broad-stroke progressive messages (on the ERA, paid family leave, reproductive rights) still resonate with women who were either of age, or coming of age when she gave her searing speech at Beijing in 1995 -- and that to younger millennials, Clinton doesn't inherently understand intersectional feminism as the current wave lives it today. Some polling seems to underscore this theory; a recent IPSOS/Rock The Vote survey shows 18-25 year-olds don't seem to be identifying with Clinton's message. Sanders has a decisive edge amongst these young millennials, while Clinton fares better amongst 26-34 year-olds. Of course, it may also be that people see Clinton as a politician too closely embodying an establishment politics that more Americans are growing to distrust (although Sanders hasn't lived under the microscope in quite the same way as the former First Lady and Secretary of State.)
Then there's the argument of making history: it's patently wrong to think that young women don't aspire to see a woman in the White House, or that they don't have the generational knowledge to appreciate the historic importance of such an occasion. As a recent LA Times story put it, they don't necessarily want to see this woman. This fact doesn't make voters who align themselves with Bernie Sanders any less feminist.
Cue Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State and a longtime Clinton ally, who spoke to a crowd of her supporters this weekend where she invoked a refrain familiar to feminists: There's a "special place in hell for women who don't help each other!" Albright's rhetoric isn't something modern-day feminists reject -- but it's out of step with this political moment. Invoking this idea on the campaign trail and branding women who aren't all-in for Hillary as women who inherently don't support female leadership is shortsighted and wrong. By Albright's token, women should also be all-in for Carly Fiorina, a candidate who has made her feminist chops clear, running on a platform of anti-choice policies while also invoking sexism to call out her other candidates and the media. Hillary Clinton's responses to the Albright/Steinem episodes is telling. When pushed to address the reaction by many feminists on NBC's 'Meet The Press' Clinton responded saying: "Good grief, we're getting offended by everything these days! People can't say anything without offending somebody." By insinuating that women who are unhappy with Steinem and Albright's remarks indicate political correctness run amok, Clinton is way off base. There's an inherent thinking at work here by all three women that millennials have somehow lost the plot and don't quite "get" the struggle. We get it.
This episode highlights the gap that Clinton still has to lock in votes this primary season. She's already made significant changes to her campaign to change course and not repeat 2008. But schooling young women on what it means to be a feminist isn't going to win any votes. Incidentally, neither will Bernie Sanders' so-called "Bernie bros" -- who've been trolling women who proudly support Hillary -- going to win Sanders any votes, something he's realized and condemned this weekend. What Clinton -- and millennial feminist naysayers -- should learn from this moment is the modern feminist movement is not beholden to a singular leadership; that the diversity of today's inclusive feminism is predicated on intersectional strength, and a power from listening to our battles today, not just attempting to frame the fight in battles of the past.