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Don't reduce debate on Hillary Clinton and women voters to a cat-fight


The arguments among feminists of different generations about who to back in the Democratic race are more nuanced and complicated than has been portrayed

Jessica Valenti

As Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in an expected but stark loss in New Hampshire, she told her audience of supporters, “I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people.”

What she didn't say, but political analysts have been abuzz about – is that it's not just young people, 83% of whom voted for Bernie Sanders this week, that Clinton is worried about.

She may also have a particular problem with young women's votes – the national data isn't complete, but what we do have paints a shaky picture not helped by a series of gaffes by Clinton's feminist surrogates over the last week.

The good news for Clinton is that her unabashed embrace of feminism at a time when the movement has tremendous cultural power has brought her campaign some great successes: enthusiastic endorsements from Planned Parenthood and Naral Pro-Choice America; celebrities like Lena Dunham singing her praises on the campaign trail; and the ability to position herself in contrast to Bernie Sanders' campaign, which is struggling to handle the sexism of some of its male supporters.

But there's also a danger in aligning yourself with a consistently misrepresented movement that has longstanding complex rifts. It's a downside the Clinton campaign was reminded of when Gloria Steinem came under fire for suggesting young women who support Sanders do so because “the boys are with Bernie”. A day later when Madeleine Albright repeated her oft-used line that, “there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other”, it gave some media all the ammunition they needed to paint complex political disagreement among women as a tawdry inter-generational cat-fight.

In a headline that has since been changed, The New York Times wrote that Steinem and Albright “scolded” young women, bringing to mind finger-wagging school marms rather than seasoned and serious activists. Jess McIntosh, vice-president of communications at Emily's List called the ensuing controversy “reductive”.

“They want to say 'Hillary is polarizing to feminists' because every feminist doesn't agree on the same message or tactics – or even the same definition of the term,” she said. “By that measure, there can literally be no standard bearer for the movement.”

Steinem has since rightly walked back her comment, and other feminists have suggested that in an interview in which the activist and author largely lauded young women, the backlash to a single sentence may have been overblown. As feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted in response, “Feminism is not what prominent feminists say or do.”

But in a media landscape that's allergic to nuance, complicated feminist discord has been both oversimplified and, fairly or not, attached to Clinton's presidential campaign. And not for the first time.

If Steinem's comments that women get “more radical” with age sounded familiar, it's because she wrote the same thing in a widely criticized 2008 op-ed in The New York Times. At the time, Steinem threw her support to Clinton over then presidential hopeful Barack Obama by arguing gender is “the most restricting force in American life” and that “the sex barrier [is] not taken as seriously as the racial one”.

The piece was swiftly taken to task by other feminists for ignoring the way that racism and sexism intersect. In a Democracy Now appearance with Steinem, Melissa Harris-Perry called it: “The very worst of second-wave feminism.”

“I just feel that we have got to get clear about the fact that race and gender are not these clear dichotomies in which, you know, you're a woman or you're black … I'm sitting here in my black womanhood body, knowing that it is more complicated than that,” she said.

Still, some white feminists continued to pit issues of race and gender against each other in the primary, with executives from NOW campaigning for Clinton in Ohio saying that sexism “is the worst of the isms”.

More controversy erupted in the 2008 campaign when former editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine Robin Morgan wrote an essay claiming those who supported Obama over Clinton did so out of an aversion to power or desire to please their boyfriends: “Goodbye to some young women eager to win male approval by showing they're not feminists (at least not the kind who actually threaten the status quo), who can't identify with a woman candidate because she actually is unafraid of eeueweeeu yucky power, who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her.”

Younger women who supported Obama (myself included) were infuriated. The infighting became so bad that a group of feminist luminaries, none aged under 40, wrote an open letter in the Nation calling for reconciliation and to “refocus on the bigger picture”.

As in 2008, these recent gaffes by feminists are much more about entrenched problems within the movement surrounding issues of racism and ageism than the Clinton campaign itself. As Annie Lowrey wrote this week in New York Magazine, “Clinton herself has strenuously avoided precisely the kinds of arguments and attacks her surrogates have been making.”

This was not lost on some feminists, even those who were discouraged by Steinem's comments. Wagatwe Wanjuki, a 29-year-old feminist writer and anti-violence activist, tells me she thought Steinem's comments were “one-dimensional” but “we're all human and make mistakes”.

“The media is quick to jump on to feminist disagreements; we just need to stop thinking … that any sort of disagreement is a bad thing or a sign of weakness,” she said.

Melissa Fabiello, the 31-year-old managing editor of Everyday Feminism who says she sees Steinem as “rooted in a feminist philosophy that no longer resonates with millennial women”, thinks that instead of focusing on older iconic figures, we should be looking towards younger people themselves for answers. Essentially, why ask an older woman about young women when you can ask young women themselves?

“Young people have opinions, and ones with real foundations,” she says.

Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, tells me that she's actually optimistic about the airing of feminist tumult; it's a good thing, she says, that a conversation is happening about “where feminism sits on the spectrum of progressive values”.

“We can all agree we want all of the candidates to talk about what progress means to them with a race and gender lens,” she said. “That's a positive thing,” she said, even if it does feel fraught at the moment.

Part of the problem, of course, is that young women's votes are treated as a monolith, in the same way as feminism. As the Daily Show's Jessica Williams said in a segment on Tuesday about the controversy, it's a problem on all sides: “It's so diminishing for women to accuse other women for supporting Hillary only because she's a woman … it's diminishing for women to tell other women that they're obligated to vote for Hillary because we all have vaginas.”

Feminist discord will continue to surface as Clinton's campaign moves on, just as it did in 2008. The trick is treating these issues, and women's votes, as the nuanced complicated area they are – instead of just another bite-sized media hit to move along the campaign conversation.

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