Hillary should act to heal divide among progressive women

Hillary should act to heal divide among progressive women

While the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders themselves has remained basically civil, the same cannot always be said of their supporters. I knew something was amiss when all the conservative, white males in my Facebook newsfeed started giving shout outs to Gloria Steinem. While I firmly believe the rough and tumble of a good primary battle is an important piece of American democracy, this particular battle has exposed some divides between female progressives in the Clinton and Sanders camps that need to be addressed, and quickly, to avoid lasting harm.

Obviously no candidate can control what other people say on their behalf. What they can do, in the case of violent or inappropriate language, is condemn it, and distance themselves from it. This process is vitally important, since in the end whichever candidate wins will need the help of all of us, and we will need to continue to work together on progressive issues long into the future. Women specifically need to stay united behind protecting and expanding reproductive rights, ensuring equality in the workplace, putting an end to all forms of violence against women, and a host of other vital issues.

The first rumblings of trouble came when we began hearing reports of the “Bernie Bro” phenomenon. It was disappointing to realize that even on the left, a political race between a male and a female was being used as a vehicle for misogyny masquerading as political discourse. Then came the disappointing reaction, with many Sanders supporters dismissing the complaints as either overblown or a lie, and Clinton supporters extrapolating the behavior of the bad apples to the entire Sanders campaign. The Sanders campaign took steps to discourage this behavior, and Sanders himself spoke against it in no uncertain terms, saying “We don’t want that crap.”

There has also been some extreme and inappropriate language coming from female Clinton supporters towards female Sanders supporters. Let’s start with Gloria Steinem, a prominent feminist and a supporter of Clinton who, when asked why most young progressive women prefer Bernie Sanders, stated that they want to be where the boys are. The backlash from Sanders supporters was immediate, and the next day she issued an apology. However, she did not specifically apologize to young, female Sanders supporters, or own up to the sexist and ageist nature of her statement. A few days later, Madeleine Albright, introducing Hillary Clinton at a rally, said “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support women.” Given the context, there is no doubt she was speaking about Sanders supporters.

What is going on here? Why would progressive women lash out against progressive women in a way that undermines our ability to work together?

I think female Clinton supporters are disappointed and baffled that many progressive women, even most progressive women in the case of those under 40, would choose to support Sanders, a man, over Clinton, the first serious female candidate for president. Sometimes this sentiment boils over into anger, resentment, even disgust, and the hurtful words it inspires are widening divides where instead we should be asking questions and bridging differences.

Based on the Iowa caucus polls, the divide between female progressives is breaking strongly along age lines, and also along class lines. There is a great deal of overlap between the two categories, as young people also tend to be less well off economically. People under 40 have grown up in a relatively less prosperous and unequal society than former generations. Student debt, and other kinds of debt, have grown as public policy switched from public funding and consumer protection to private funding and a buyer beware market. Women bear the brunt of this economic reality, making up the majority of those living in poverty over age 18.

It is probably safe to say that these young women prioritize radically changing the economy and getting rid of political corruption over having a female figurehead. This is reasonable. Instead of dismissing them, they should be listened to, and their priorities should be acknowledged. Listening to them with respect may not cause them to switch camps, but it could strengthen the unity of progressive women and make us more able to work together for a Democratic victory in the general election and into the future on the issues that matter to all of us. While female leadership is no doubt very important to the advancement of women, so is the addressing of our highly unequal and exploitative economic system that falls especially heavily on women. It is not this OR this, it is this AND this. It is our order of priorities that differ, not the priorities themselves. Unfortunately, we did not get all of our priorities in any one candidate, so on that we will have to agree to disagree for now. But we can do it with kindness and respect.

Something that would go a long ways towards beginning this dialogue would be for Hillary Clinton to condemn and distance herself from the condescending and dismissive words of her high-profile supporters. It would send a message to her supporters that this divisive language is unacceptable, and let female Sanders supporters know that this aggression is not the position of the Clinton campaign (something that is not at all clear at this point). Additionally, I think a move like this would increase her chances of a victory in the general election should she win the primary, something I think we can all agree would be a better outcome for women than the alternative. In the end, we are all in this together.

Photo via Flickr/ABC

About author

April Thibodeau
April Thibodeau 11 posts

April Thibodeau majored in Political Science at the University of Maine and has experience in law, non-profit work and political advocacy. She lives on Westport Island with her husband and two cats and enjoys gardening, homesteading and rural life.

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