Why Hillary Clinton Can’t Seem to Win Over Young Women

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One poll shows young women prefer Sanders by 19 points.
One poll shows young women prefer Sanders by 19 points. Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

When the Democratic nomination is finally decided, it will be remembered for the increasingly acrimonious fights between two sides that might otherwise agree: the Bernie bros versus the Hillarybots. The political revolutionary versus the pragmatic incrementalist. Now, thanks to comments from two of Hillary’s most prominent feminist campaign surrogates, there’s a new schism: old-guard feminists versus a new generation. Gloria Steinem’s and Madeleine Albright’s comments revealed an inconvenient truth for Clinton backers, who thought they could count on a new generation of feminists to help propel her to the White House: Most young women prefer Bernie Sanders.

They say his brand of populist progressivism better fits their idea of intersectional feminism. They don’t trust a candidate who once backed the Defense of Marriage Act. They don’t expect to identify with any of the candidates, necessarily, but they feel like Sanders’s message about an energized electorate banding together to demand action on climate change, college affordability, and campaign-finance reform is more exciting and empowering than the message of a seasoned politician working the levers of Washington. The gender-based appeal doesn’t impress them — and the suggestion that they don’t understand the stakes of the campaign insults them.

In an interview with Bill Maher, Steinem suggested that some young women were supporting Bernie Sanders to be closer to men. After noting that women tend to get radical as they age and confront their waning power in society, she added: “And when you’re younger, you think, Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” A day later, Albright took the stage at a rally and revisited a version of her famous line — “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” — in an effort to marshal support for Clinton.

The backlash on college campuses, where Sanders is overwhelmingly popular, was fierce. “I was furious, surprised, and appalled because it just seems like exactly the opposite of a position that somebody who is a feminist should be taking,” says Mariah Joyce, a junior at the College of Wooster who supports Sanders. She says she’s uncomfortable about the extent to which money and family name tend to determine who becomes president, and she thinks Sanders has been more consistently progressive throughout his career.

“I expected Secretary Clinton to address these comments and say something that assured voters and non-voters that those comments are not okay to make, just like Senator Sanders has called out the quote-unquote Bernie bros,” says Uche Iteogu, a recent Columbia University graduate who came around to Sanders after studying Clinton’s long political history. “I was very disappointed.”

A week after a narrow .3 percent victory in Iowa, and on the eve of an expected loss in New Hampshire, it’s becoming clear that the possibility of making history is not enough to win young women voters, who now prefer Sanders to Clinton* by as much as 19 points, according to one poll. I spent the day before the New Hampshire primary talking to young women across the country who identify as feminists and are supporting Sanders. What I found was a sense of resentment at the suggestions made by Clinton’s campaign supporters, both implicitly and explicitly, that young women should support Hillary because she’s a woman. They believe that a kind of feminism that demands allegiance to a female politician is not the type of feminism they ascribe to. And they convey a sense that Clinton’s campaign hasn’t given young women enough of a reason to vote for her.

“The idea of voting for a woman purely for the fact that she’s a woman — that’s really almost the opposite of what we’re talking about in our feminist movement,” says Carly Gilmore, a Wesleyan University freshman who believes Sanders has done more to educate young people about the political system than Clinton has.

Multiple women told me their version of feminism is all about intersectionality, so they’re bothered by the implication that voters should support Hillary because they are women. “Trying to make it a feminist message, that I should vote for her just because she’s a woman, takes it over-the-top to the point that I think it’s bullshit. It’s not really thought-out,” says Lupita Lopez, a 24-year-old Sanders supporter from California. Several of the young feminists supporting Bernie called Albright’s comment a peak example of the problem with “white feminism:” demanding allegiance without making a case for why women should be loyal.

“Underlying this statement is the notion that gender trumps other social categories, completely ignoring the existence of complex, intersectional identities, such as race, class, etc.,” says Harvard student Lorena Aviles. “Albright speaks of an inherent alliance between all women and Hillary, and in doing so, she suggests that women owe their vote to Hillary, that to support another candidate is to be a bad feminist and woman, and to moronically stand against yourself. Her white feminist perspective speaks to the various ways in which women of color are failed within our political system. Why should an undocumented, hardworking mother find in Hillary an ally for the trials she faces? How does the election of Hillary ease the horrors black families, and mothers specifically, experience given the context of police brutality against bodies of color?”

Or, as Barrett Smith, a 19-year-old freshman at University of Texas at Austin, puts it: “A feminism that doesn’t include all women and that just focuses on silly symbolism is not a movement I want to be a part of or that I want to be in power. Having a woman president would be cool, but having a president that supports women who aren’t wealthy and white is more important.”

This generation of feminists is more diverse and inclusive than previous generations, and it includes a lot of women who don’t see themselves reflected in any of the candidates — which makes it harder to convince them that they should see themselves as natural Clinton supporters. “I don’t think, Oh, Hillary is a woman, I have to support her,” says Monet Davis, a College of Wooster freshman. “I’m an 18-year-old black woman. If you compared me to Bernie there’s nothing in common at all. He doesn’t know my exact struggle.” But, she is quick to add, neither does Hillary. “I still respect her a lot as a person, she’s a very notable politician. But I don’t think I could identify with her.”

The backlash may not end up mattering to Clinton: Most of these women aren’t angry enough that they would refuse to vote for her if she won the nomination. But young women are increasingly a power bloc in elections — they were a key component of Obama’s reelection in 2012 — and even if she manages to win the primary without them, she’ll need their active support if she wants to repeat Obama’s victories. And right now, she doesn’t have it.

“There are many of us who still are thankful for her work and thankful for the feminist movement,” says Jazmin Vargas, a senior at Barnard who says that Sanders’s message about college affordability and universal health care speaks to her. “At the same time we’re at the point where we don’t want to select any woman, we want to select the right candidate for women’s rights. It’s not about symbolic representation anymore. It’s about selecting substantive representation.”

In a way, the critiques from Sanders’s feminist supporters match the complaints campaign insiders have long had about Clinton. They don’t think she’s made a strong enough case for why she should choose them. Is it any wonder that they resent being told they’re not being supportive enough?

“You do not vote for a woman because she is a woman. You vote for her because she is capable of representing you in a political sphere, because her values align with yours, and because you see in her something you can’t see in someone else,” Aviles says. “And, sometimes, that means you vote for ‘him.’”

*This post has been updated to show women voters prefer Sanders to Clinton, not Clinton to Sanders.