Bernie Sanders Won Me Over With His Unconventional Vision Of Feminism
2016 is a heady time for young female voters like me — women who vote Democratic in presidential elections but feel unrepresented by the Democratic Party, who strongly identify with socialism and feminism, and who share many Americans’ desire to elect a female president, but have serious misgivings about the specific woman who's running. Hillary Clinton has spent a lot of time talking about her purported record of fighting for girls and women, while Bernie Sanders has spent a lot of time talking about economic inequality. Both are pro-choice. If you care as much about safeguarding women's rights as you do about ending income inequality, as I and many of my friends do, it's time to ask yourself: Is Clinton or Sanders better for women?
One of the most surprising and frequently discussed aspects of the 2016 election is how ambivalent women, especially millennial women, are about Clinton. According to a USA Today / Rock the Vote poll from March, millennial women back Sanders over Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin.
In February, Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at The Nation who is herself a millennial, called into question Clinton's credentials for improving the lives of women. She wrote that the former secretary of state is "not the most egregious opponent of women's well-being" — a statement that many of Clinton's supporters (and even her critics) would find to be a shocking understatement. Leonard went on to criticize Clinton for the company she keeps:
Her allies … are big donors like Goldman Sachs and Walmart, which lobby hard against redistribution and good treatment of women in the workplace.
Leonard is in good company. She and other feminist women have shown that the desire to see a woman in the White House is not enough to convince all leftist women — even (and I would argue, especially) those who are committed to women's advancement — to vote for Clinton.
But to read a Clinton campaign email, or any number of articles by any number of prominent feminists-cum-Clinton backers, as I’ve been doing for many months now, is to hear over and over that Clinton is the one true defender of women’s rights. She has certainly talked about the wage gap, paid family leave, and abortion rights in speeches. But which candidate and which set of policies would do more good for more women?
In attempting to answer that question, I got to thinking about the candidates' different visions of feminism. I believe Clinton when she says she is a feminist. I believe that she wants to see more women in the halls of power, and like her, I believe that women should have the same opportunities in life as men. But I think we need to do more to fulfill that vision than support one woman in her quest to break the "ultimate" glass ceiling. In an ideal America, little girls would grow up confident that they too can be president or a CEO. But they should also grow up knowing they'll have access to an education and a job that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families.
The women I'm most concerned about are those who aspire to keep food on their tables, not those who aspire to the C-suite. That's why I see economic advancement, debt reduction, and raising the minimum wage as critical feminist issues. They disproportionately affect women, and if we don't address them, the number of women who are able to advance so far professionally that they could even consider a presidential run will remain pitifully small.
There are certainly other issues to consider, including who will fight harder for paid family leave, pay equity, and affordable child care (both candidates have pledged their support). And when it comes to abortion rights, widely considered one of the most pressing feminist issues of our time, both candidates have received 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The delightfully blunt Liza Featherstone, journalist, contributing editor to The Nation, and editor of the forthcoming book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, describes both Sanders’ social views and his economic agenda as feminist. When speaking to Bustle about Sanders' feminist credentials, she cites his focus on raising wages and single-payer healthcare: “Women have higher healthcare costs, are more likely to go into debt or bankruptcy due to medical costs, and are more likely to be financially responsible for other people’s healthcare as well, including children and the elderly.”
Featherstone characterizes Sanders’ call for free public college education as another “incredibly important feminist plank” of the Vermont senator's platform, given that the majority of college students and holders of student debt are women. In fact, she says that Sanders’ highest political priorities are all “issues of extreme importance to women.” To her, it's impossible to draw a distinction between economic and feminist issues:
“When you’re not concerned with women’s economic security, you’re not concerned with the full spectrum of their rights, including the right to have as many children as they want.”
And as many feminists have pointed out, raising the federal minimum wage would disproportionately affect women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, two-thirds of minimum wage workers in the United States are female. Sanders has pushed for a $15 federal minimum wage and has been a strong and consistent advocate on this issue. Clinton initially called for the minimum wage to be raised to $12, but has since said she'd sign a bill supporting a $15 minimum wage, with stipulations.
Rosalyn Cooperman, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, tells Bustle that Sanders is promoting a message of economic populism, “so tying the status of women to support for the minimum wage is an important consideration … We know, for example, that women are more likely than men to work part-time jobs without healthcare, sick leave, disability leave, and other kinds of benefits.” Especially when it comes to raising the minimum wage, she says Sanders’ message might resonate with “part-time workers, workers at the lower end of the economic scale, who are disproportionately women, and female heads of household.”
Melissa Deckman, the Louis L. Goldstein professor of public affairs and chair of the political science department at Washington College, tells Bustle she agrees with the common assessment that Clinton is “not as progressive on economic issues” as Sanders. Moreover, she says she's "not surprised that for younger women and millennials, economic issues resonate more. Many millennial women are coming out of college and can’t find jobs.”
But young American women who support Sanders aren't simply prioritizing economic issues over feminist ones. I, and many of my peers, believe economic issues are core feminist concerns, and those of us who are feeling the Bern have made a strong case that more women would be better off with the Vermont senator in the White House.
Rebecca Chalif, a Hillary for America spokeswoman, tells Bustle in an email that, “Hillary Clinton has been fighting for women and girls throughout her career, and she has a proven record of achieving real results. Women need more than just a reliable vote; they need a fighter who will keep the issues they care most about at the forefront of the conversation ... Clinton will continue to champion issues like equal pay, paid leave, and reproductive rights not only as 'women’s issues,' but as family issues and economic issues that are crucial to our future competitiveness.”
The Sanders campaign did not return my request for comment, but I spoke with a number of Sanders supporters who vigorously defended his record on and commitment to safeguarding women's rights and raising their wages. When it comes to courting women voters, a key difference between the campaigns seems to lie in how they're identifying and prioritizing the issues women care about most.
I believe that Clinton believes she is a champion of women’s rights, and I understand the impulse to take her word for it. But in my view, a much larger and more diverse group of women stands to gain from the economic and reproductive policies of a Sanders administration than from the soaring rhetoric of a Clinton administration.