Political Sexism & The Old New Left: Bernie Sanders’s Revolution Relies on Regression

“[Their behavior is] disgusting. We don’t want that crap… Look, anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things is — we don’t want them. I don’t want them. That’s not what this campaign is about.” — Bernie Sanders, regarding ‘Bernie Bros’ | 2.7.2016 | CNN’s State of the Union with host Jake Tapper
“Senator Sanders once again highlighted the difference between an ally and a champion. His voting record is sufficient, but it doesn’t make him a champion for women… He’s made it clear that, in his mind, the economic critique at the center of his campaign trumps the importance of any identity politics, including gender.” — Kaylie Hanson, NARAL Pro-Choice America National Communications Director
It seems obvious that a legitimate revolution must be led by, made by those who have been most oppressed: black, brown, yellow, red, and white women — with men relating to that the best they can. — Robin Morgan, Goodbye to All of That, 1970

Bernie Sanders has made a political career of allowing a single-minded focus on economic inequality obscure the fact that, while he is a political ally of women in regards to his voting history, he is too often unwilling to discuss the most basic social issues as a priority. Sanders surrenders in silence because behind is voting record, there is a 74 year old condescending liberal man who uses his support of ‘women’s rights’ as a means to talk to and about women with sexist condescension.

Bernie Sanders has a history of famously attacking successful female politicians running against him by attempting to belittle them. In the mid-80s, he tried to dismiss Democratic Gov. Madeleine Kunin by claiming he was “more of a feminist” than she could ever be. Despite her vocal support of ERA, Sanders told his supporters that his opponent had “done nothing for women” and incited his mostly male audience to behave obnoxiously around this opponent while stressing to his female supporters that they needed to hammer her for “not being feminist enough”. While he was losing ground to Kunin, he stated that this female peer, and others like her, relied heavily on “being a female” to coast through politics without “substance”. While she was making historic breakthroughs, Sanders personally lambasted Kunin as nothing but “an empty vessel”. When challenged with Kunin’s approval rating, Sanders dismissed it as “superficial” because, as he hypothesized, Kunin was given a pass as the first female Governor of Vermont. He further undercut his female peer as a professional by stating her rating was based — essentially — on how she looked, coupled with the hiring of a great press secretary.

Later in her 1994 memoir, Living a Political Life, the former Govenor recalled Sanders’s “daily diet consisted of vitriol” in regards to her.

During his 80s-era run against a seasoned female candidate, Sanders stressed — just as he is implying now — that voting for a woman just because she is a woman is sexist (in that it derails voting for the best candidate who will win in comparison to the who best represents one’s values). Carol Horner, in her May 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer article, highlighted Sander’s apathy toward making a commitment to increase the number of women in political office article by suggesting gender shouldn’t matter: “I get angry at people who say, ‘Gee, she’s a woman — how could you be running against a woman?’” Sanders of the ‘80s was skeptical of feminist politics, opting instead to focus on “fighting the ruling class.” In his first gubernatorial debate he made the pointed claim: “True equality for women requires that we address this issue.” During this time he stated while he supported women’s issues, particularly their poverty and the lack of child care, he did so as a socialist rather than as a feminist. He also claimed, “The Equal Rights Amendment is a conservative statement.”

But, a over a decade before the Kunin debacle, Sanders provided an interview to the Bennington Banner which described him as being “deplored” by the “lack of support [his political compatriot and fellow Liberty Union candidate] Ms. Abbott has received from women.” The 1974 interview also included Sanders claiming to be unimpressed with “other women candidates elsewhere.” He used the same article to attack Connecticut Democratic gubernatorial candidate and public service powerhouse, Ella Grasso, as “nothing more than a political hack.”

Sanders has always held the same ambivalence he has about feminism toward his political peers, especially those who are women although he is never afraid to point out all he does for females despite the fact that women’s issues are never a major part of his campaign. An early Burlington grassroots organizer in the Burlington’s Women Council, Lynn Vera, explained her experience with then Mayor Sanders: “Sander’s has not been good on women’s issues in Burlington, we’ve had to push him every step of the way and then he takes the credit”. [Via Interview with Catherine Alison Hill for her thesis presented in May 1989]

And such is Sanders’s shady New Left-style “equality” game when he has to confront women’s issues. Barney Frank speculated that Sanders’s ego and “his holier-than-thou attitude” allowed him to get away with such behaviors as a politician. In ’91, Frank said, “Saying in a very loud voice he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else — really undercuts his effectiveness.” By being ineffective no one actually expects you to deliver. They just roll their eyes and tune you out.

Now in early 2016, Sanders finally seems to have found his audience in the ever-so-ernest ‘Bernie Bro’ who also deals with females using gendered and tone-deaf language. There are countless articles suggesting the ‘Bernie Bro’ issue is a non-issue and shouldn’t be associated with Sanders at all. Personally, I think such a response is an easy way to whitewash the hypocrisy and cruelty underling 40+ years of Sanders’s social activism without investigating why so-called social revolutionary ‘Bros’ (white men of privilege) have such an affinity for him.

Houston consultant Susan Boardman Russ describes the allure of Sanders to these young men: “Bernie is so certain that what he represents politically is unquestionably correct, therefore everyone should agree. Not much room for compromise…it was, ‘Play in my sandbox, or get out.’”

Because I know my New Left history, I understand why Walker Bragman feels it’s ok to write in support of Sanders while using his position to accuse Clinton of believing “that gender is a substitute for policy positions”. I also know why a general Bernie Supporter online can lambast women for “voting with their vaginas” (echoing trite Sandersisms from his essays) without batting an eyelash. Their leader — their authentic titular guide to revolution — did it first and has become a career politician by mocking and dismissing his female peers.

Look at his unintentionally ironic statements directed at Clinton implying how empty her “screaming” was about gun control recently, yet he can freely literally yell “revolution” without formulating a plan of action and get embraced for his “authenticity”. Look at his attacks on Kunin claiming she was only elected governor because she was a woman and symbolic of the Democrat rhetoric of the time. He’s the same guy who 43 years ago took it upon himself to speculate about female rape fantasies and the psychology of the female mind. Much has been made of the passage that Sanders wrote about women who enjoy being “fucked” by their men while simultaneously “fantasizing about being raped by three other men” because of — you know — internal gender stereotypes. While this is an obvious failed attempt at 70s-era dark satire, Sanders’s distance from femisim is so vast he stumbles into accusing women of misandry — something I am shocked hasn’t been highlighted more: “You hated me — just as you have hated every man in your entire life, but you didn’t have the guts to tell me that…. You hated me not because of who I am, or what I was to you, but because I am a man. You did not deal with me as a person — as me. You lived a lie with me, used me and played games with me — and that’s a piggy thing to do.”

Yet, the real issue is that Sanders, clinging to his counterculture revolution “reinstituting oppression by another name” — as feminist Robin Morgan called it — still had the gravitas and privilege to publish smarmy psychobabble justifying misandry in 1974, during a time when reformers like Morgan were taking this attitude in leftist publications to task. Four years prior, Morgan rebelled against the “counterfeit male-dominated Left” with her essay Goodbye to All of That. She calls out counterculture leaders like Bernie Sanders: “[Goodbye to the] good guys who think they know what ‘Women’s Lib,’ as they so chummily call it, is all about — who then proceed to degrade and destroy women by almost everything they say and do.” The takeaway from her call to action: those in a position of power who consider anyone’s someone’s suffering and oppression as simply a microcosm of capitalist economy, do so to ensure their own power and status.

Which is exactly what Bernie Sanders has done since he first emerged on the “radical” Left scene. Almost every time Sanders discusses being in favor of women’s issues he is also dishing out patronizing rhetoric about “unifying the fight” that downplays/silences female voices in favor of a malecentric rational “one revolution” manuevering.

Sanders’s issues with women can be directly correlated with the era in which he became indoctrinated in his philosophies. As a young activist coming of age during the New Left culture of the 60s, he was immersed into a revolution which simultaneously argued on the one hand that capitalism was the real cause of women’s oppression, but on the other hand claimed only men were fully equipped to fight capitalism. As Casey Hayden and Mary King wrote in 1965, sexism did not stop at the door of the radical meeting house — it was a very real problem in the New Left community. There is a long, sorted history of New Left men dismissing women. Even Sanders’s often heralded ALL CAPS college manifesto on sexual freedom sits uncomfortably with me knowing he was writing it from a New Left cultural prospective advocating for HIS and other males ease of access to sex instead of sexual empowerment for women (who, more often than not, were belittled, dismissed, objectified, and controlled by their New Left revolutionary male counterparts under the guise of ‘sexual freedom’ and ‘empowerment’). The overriding theme in his essays since his college days has been, that women come to “accept” love from men, for their own good. Robin Morgan calls this the “hypocritical double standard that reeks through the tattered charm.” As it stands, Sanders, as a member of the ruling elite and New Left radical — despite all his talk of revolution, still manifests sexist subtexts and, by proxy, allows his ‘Bernie Bros’ to follow suit.

We have met the enemy and he’s our friend. And dangerous.

The reality is I don’t know how I am going to vote, but I would rather not support a man who has a history of pointing out that “women’s issues” are essentially a distraction from more important issues, as Sanders has done in every election prior to this campaign. Bernie Sanders has routinely suggested that female peers who prioritize women’s issues do so at the cost of a larger, “more important” revolution of unspecified goals and are, in a sense, selfish and underming for doing so. Sanders, however, in certain venues where being a feminist has cache, has recently touted his feminist stance as someone who has made “a commitment to fight for women’s rights” (again, see the New Left argument about how only men can fight against capitalism and help the oppressed along the way). Sanders, nevertheless, attempts to downplay ‘the woman issue’ regarding gender and the presidency: “We want to see women hold more political offices. But I also would hope that, in these enormously difficult times, where it is absolutely imperative that we stand up to the billionaire class, bring our people together, to fight for a progressive agenda, that all people — women — look at that candidate who has the record to do that.” This is almost verbatim the same argument he made against Madeline Kunin 30 years ago (see Catherine Alison Hill’s thesis presented in May 1989 for primary documentation).

Despite making statements about wanting to see more women in politics, Sanders is keeping the New Left Boys Club afloat by retaining a predominantly male inner circle which has been accused of keeping women out of the top ranks. And, again, using the aforementioned quote, Sanders sticks to his implication that women who spend too much time concerned about gender issues do so at the cost of the progressive agenda. He urges women — pointedly — to become vested in him and his progressive agenda and, by proxy, the ‘gender thing’ will sort itself out.


After the revolution against the Billionaire class.

See what he does there? Sanders focuses the fight against capitalism and offers a kernel of hope that eventually this action will help women move beyond oppression. Hello, late 1960s New Left mission: the dismissal of female subjugation as an unimportant concern with emphasis on the more important fight against capitalism! This is by far Sanders’s most recycled talking point since becoming a politician and he is stumping with it again.

New Left culture was the epitome of Bro Culture before we had a term for it. Bernie Sanders is just a holdover from those chauvinistic halcyon days. The reality is, he hasn’t adapted much since he was a young man lamenting his lack of access to easy sex on campus in early ‘60s. He hasn’t grown all that much from the dejected radical deconstructing rape fantasies while blaming misandry for ruined sexual relationships in his early 30s. 20 years ago, just like today, he suggested that women in politics are there because they are symbolic figures who are elected by other women out of sexist sisterhood. He still dismisses his female peers as empty symbols or inauthentic in comparison to himself.

In 1979, Sanders lamented television as a tool that relied on “the well-tested Hitlerian principle that people should be treated as morons and bombarded over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas.” For almost 45 years, Sanders hasn’t waived from the New Left rhetoric he helped to build. For me, Sanders and the eager regression back into the male-centric New Left Bro Culture is scary. I don’t see anything progressive about it at all.

Goodbye to all that.


Catherine Alison Hall’s thesis also included the following assessment:

Sanders’ position on women’s issues were not his strongest 
suit. He denounced the obvious — poverty and inequalities between 
men’s and women’s pay, but did not seem to understand the specifics 
of the issues. He pushed the issue of childcare, but as a service 
to working mothers rather than as a restructuring of domestic work. 
He supported the work of the Burlington Women’s Council, but only 
with prodding. Moreover, his administration had not been without 
accusations of sexism. The Equal Pay for Equal Work study had not 
been enacted fully, nor had Sanders appointed women to top 
positions. More generally, feminists objected to Sanders’ dogmatic 
style and his assumption of credit for the work the Women’s Council
did. Feminists picked up on a real ambivalence in Sanders’ analysis 
of the woman question. Women were specially oppressed, but not 
different oppressed. In practice this translated into a focus on 
women as victims. Women were underpaid, lived in worse housing 
conditions, received worse medical care and insurance benefits, were 
discriminated against in education, and were subjected to violence 
by both male friends and strangers. These facts beg for an 
explanation which goes farther than simply claiming that women are 
specially oppressed. While Sanders sees the problem, he does not 
seem to grapple with it and women’s issues were not a major part of 
his campaign.