When It Comes To Discussing Gender In Politics, Everyone Is Losing

This story is part of The Establishment’s ongoing series exploring the political dialogue surrounding the democratic presidential candidates, progressivism, and feminism.

The conversation about gender bias against Hillary Clinton and the existence of “Bernie bros” has become an incredibly deep quagmire that I’m worried we — meaning American women — are never going to crawl out of. Who, exactly, is benefiting from our current dialogue about gender and politics? Because it’s not American women, it’s not whoever becomes our first female president, and it’s certainly not American voters in general.

Right now, I’m watching as feminist writers, progressive journalists, veteran political reporters, young political reporters, and seasoned political operatives duke it out on Twitter and on television, all without fostering a truly constructive conversation about gender and politics.

Hillary Clinton is not a perfect candidate. Bernie Sanders is not a perfect candidate. No one who has ever run for office for president of the United States has represented all things to all people. In order to successfully move forward, we must acknowledge that both candidates deserve criticism for their blindspots — and we must demand a more nuanced conversation.

Gender Issues On Both Sides

What angers me about the righteous indignation of male Sanders supporters — and yes, I realize there are plenty of female Sanders supporters, too — is that instead of acknowledging the importance of the milestone of the first female president and moving on, there is a tendency to completely overlook it or even mock the concept of caring about such a milestone at all. Women are essentially written off for being attached to this event, despite never seeing a president of their gender. This desire to see a woman elected president is especially pronounced for older women. I’m in my late 20s, and I may see the first female president regardless of the outcome of this election — but women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s might feel a greater sense of urgency, and I can’t blame them if they’re affected by that. People will argue that there are far better reasons to vote for a candidate — my 64-year-old mother who has supported Sanders since last summer seems to think so — but I think men in particular have a lot of nerve belittling women for allowing themselves to consider it as one of many elements affecting their voting decision.

There’s also been a tendency to overlook the deeper implications of electing a female president. Both Clinton and Sanders have already made history — she as the first woman to win the Iowa Caucus and he as the first democratic socialist to win the New Hampshire primary — but for some reason, many Sanders supporters seem to think that fighting classism is more revolutionary and history-making than breaking gender barriers. Why pit the two issues against each other, especially when gender is so tied to economic opportunity? This response only lends credibility to the idea that Sanders can’t address how different kinds of discrimination affect economic inequality.

I’ve also seen male Bernie supporters and political reporters dismiss female journalists who point out that female candidates often have to make political considerations that white male candidates don’t. Many of the white, very progressive men I follow on Twitter self-righteously argue that plenty of women have been revolutionary when it isn’t easy. “What is your excuse?” they ask all too swiftly. But how can someone who likely hasn’t made the same compromises to ensure they’re in the room at all dare to shake their finger at women for a lack of ideological purity? Plenty of women, women of color, queer women, and trans women have made and continue to make history, and it’s important to point out that their efforts shouldn’t be erased. But in that same spirit, how can we ignore the fact that these amazing revolutionary women weren’t considered realistic candidates for president? Honoring women with better progressive credentials means recognizing their struggles and the limitations imposed on them because of their status as ambitious, unapologetically liberal women.

As Clinton has discovered over the years, you can’t win if you’re seen as too radical, as she was considered much earlier in her career, and you lose if you’re seen as insufficiently inspirational.

Lastly, there have been and always will be men who tell women — with an ease that will forever make me queasy — to stop worrying about the risk they’re taking by voting for the more progressive Democratic candidate, or a third-party candidate, who’s less likely to win in the general election. During the last presidential election, I recall straight white cis men I’m friends with calling on women to take a chance on someone outside the Democratic Party. I remember men assuring women that Roe v. Wade wasn’t in any danger of being overturned, and to “not let the establishment Democrats scare you into voting out of fear.”

But Michael Eric Dyson addressed this argument well in 2012, saying to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “What is not good are ideals and rhetorics that don’t have the practice — don’t have the possibility of changing the condition that you analyze. Otherwise, you’re engaging in a form of rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation that has no consequence on the material conditions of actually existing poor people.” Rebecca Solnit also addressed those asking voters not to vote for Obama to be reelected, and refuted the idea of the “lesser of two evils” in Mother Jones, saying that it’s the most privileged among us who can afford to be “grumpy” and complain about our deeply flawed political system.

To some extent, this worry about taking a risk on the more progressive candidate is diminished this time around; Bernie Sanders is a far more viable presidential candidate than most cynical political observers, including myself, would have guessed a few months ago. But that doesn’t mean the risk isn’t present, or that it should be outright dismissed.

There’s additionally a tendency for women who dare challenge Sanders to be labeled as troublemakers or default Clinton supporters. Glenn Greenwald wrote, “The concoction of the ‘Bernie Bro’ narrative by pro-Clinton journalists has been a potent political tactic — and a journalistic disgrace.” Yet women have every right to criticize Sanders for talking about paid leave as if fathers would never use it — Mitt Romney was rightfully lambasted by feminists when he said something similar about work/life balance in 2012 — or for supporting a lack of involvement from institutions of higher education in campus rape cases, which campus rape survivors have opposed.

There is a lack of acknowledgement from those Bernie supporters that in an environment where women’s reproductive rights are being chipped away, women — and poor women in particular — have more to lose. We could lose if Sanders doesn’t see these issues as a priority, as part of economic inequality and not as a separate “women’s issue.” And we would definitely lose if a Republican won the general election, as could happen if Sanders, as feared, proves to be an unviable candidate in the general election. I don’t want the Clinton camp — or other moderate, establishment Democrats and affiliated groups — to attempt to scare women into voting for Clinton. That is another kind of condescension. But I also think white straight cisgender men shouldn’t have the gall to question voters’ independence of thought if they are hesitant to vote for him out of that fear.

Bernie 3
One of the many young Bernie supporters at his New Hampshire victory rally in Concord.

My main problem with Sanders himself is that although he has made significant progress — like adding a racial justice platform to his site (when prompted to anyway) — he still treats reproductive rights, equal play, racial discrimination, and LGBT issues as an afterthought, as Kathleen Geier at The Nation fairly pointed out. If I’m going to vote for the most progressive candidate, I want to feel as if that candidate is truly listening to me, instead of just papering over concerns long after they’ve blown up in the media. Sanders supporters keep talking about his excellent record on the issues, and rightfully so, but I need to hear him raise these issues more often on the campaign trail to show that he understands how they intersect.

Of course, we’ve also seen the ways in which the Clinton campaign and its prominent supporters have failed young women by condescending to them and suggesting that they have not lost power in the way older women have, as Gloria Steinem said recently. The idea that a woman needs to reach her 40s or 50s to understand how the patriarchy affects her everyday life and diminishes her power is ridiculous. This reveals a real disconnect with the experiences of young women, many of whom have already been talked down to by bosses and co-workers, sexually harassed at work, condescended to by male friends and significant others, and sexually assaulted, only to be disbelieved. Even many years earlier, little girls recognize unfairness in the toy aisles when they don’t see themselves or their interests reflected in popular culture. Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem’s comments on young women’s motivations when choosing their next president were shameful and revealed a deep distrust of women’s judgment. The damage can’t be undone, and it didn’t help matters what Clinton chalked up outrage to political correctness, further showing how out of step she is with the values of many progressive young women.

Clinton’s defense when challenged on her lack of progressive bona fides on various issues — being late to supporting LGBT rights, voting for the Iraq war, taking money from financial institutions for her entire political career — shouldn’t be “How revolutionary is it to have a woman in the White House?” This argument talks down to both women and men who support gender equality. (Though I will say it’s slightly understandable to me that someone whose gender has been used against her for her entire career would embrace using her gender for her benefit without apology.)

A More Nuanced Conversation

All of this points to the underlying problem with the conversation we’re having about gender and politics: it lacks nuance. It lacks nuance because the discussion generally seems to break down accordingly:

If you acknowledge sexism affects Hillary Clinton, you’re supporting her politically.
These are not the same things. You can support the “right” female president when she comes along by combatting sexism now.

You’re giving way too much weight to how much the patriarchy affects Clinton’s campaign and the overall direction of her career. Maybe this is just who she is.
Perhaps both can be true. A person’s actions can never be attributed wholly to either who someone is and how the patriarchy affects them. There are multiple factors, and unfortunately, the patriarchy is one that we can point out as long as it affects women’s lives.

Clinton is so powerful that she is no longer affected by sexism.
Her political influence and wealth do not erase the gender bias she’s experiencing. We can be aware of the fact that Clinton is in a unique position compared to most women running for political office while acknowledging that she is still unfairly attacked with gendered dog whistles.

If you’re criticizing Sanders at all, ever, you want him to fail.
I think a lot of people expect more of Sanders because he is the candidate who asks Democratic voters to dream big. I think people who most want to see Sanders succeed should also want to ensure that he lives up to his revolutionary promise.

Letting people off the hook for their gender bias against Hillary Clinton is okay if they don’t support her for other reasons besides sexism.
If you think allowing a misogynist culture to thrive until a far more progressive and inspirational female candidate enters the political arena is a wise decision, then you’re incredibly naive.

Bernie bros are probably not real and even if they are, we shouldn’t be talking about them.
They are real, and no less real than any progressive men who ignore their own misogynist impulses, as pieces criticizing Clinton’s personality (some Millennial men find it repellent) alongside her policy decisions show us. The important point is not that they support Sanders — since Sanders probably does not deserve to be held accountable for them and has publicly slammed their behavior — but that they are hurting his campaign and the effectiveness of its message.

Women who are voting for Hillary Clinton are voting with their vaginas.
As hilarious as it may be to imagine what voting with one’s vagina might look like, I find this statement pretty abhorrent, particularly when the group typically eschewing “identity politics” appears to have zero self-awareness of the fact that white men have been voting for other white men for a very long time. Unlike men, however, women tend to reflect more on how their awareness of a candidate’s gender may affect their vote. That is the key difference.

So long as the dialogue is dominated by these oversimplified reactions, rather than a nuanced and complex understanding of gender and politics, we will never be able to talk about the best candidate for president with any clarity. The conversation needs to be free of condescension from both male Bernie supporters and female Clinton supporters who think women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.


Lead image: Several busloads of Clinton supporters drove up from Arkansas to volunteer for the campaign in New Hampshire in the lead-up to the primary. The volunteers included state representatives and even one of Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff. Many women were among them. All photos by Zach D Roberts.


More stories from The Establishment’s political series:
Let’s Not Pretend Electing The First Female President Wouldn’t Be Radical
Stop Telling Marginalized People Who They Must Vote For
No, White Women, I Will Not Be Voting For Hillary
Why I Prefer Bernie’s Revolution To Hillary’s Boardroom Feminism
To Move Forward, We Must Stop Enabling The Democratic Party

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