Why Do Millennial Feminists Overwhelmingly Favor Bernie Over Hillary?
By Kylie Cheung
This story is part of The Establishment’s ongoing series exploring the political dialogue surrounding the democratic presidential candidates, progressivism, and feminism.
The past four state primaries of the Democratic nomination saw tight races between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — at least until her decisive South Carolina victory on Saturday. But Sanders has famously and consistently captured the vote among those under 30, by 6–1 margins in Iowa and Nevada, a 5–1 margin in New Hampshire, and, though less dramatically, 54% to 46% in South Carolina.
The strong support for Sanders among millennials is a source of comfort for Bernie supporters demoralized by Clinton’s recent string of victories — not to mention polling indicating that today’s Super Tuesday primaries aren’t looking good for him.
This support suggests that, win or lose, Sanders’ policies represent the future of the party. Even more powerfully, it indicates a lot about the evolving state of feminism.
Liberal Women, Divided
Bernie’s bolstered support among millennials holds true with women as well, despite the fact that Hillary would seem to be the more obvious choice. According to a recent USA Today poll, Sanders has 50% of millennial women’s support to Clinton’s 31%, while women over 65 strongly support Clinton. And according to Wall Street Journal polling, 64% of Democratic women under 45 support Sanders to Clinton’s 35%, where Clinton leads Sanders 9 points among women 45 and older.
Although Gloria Steinem recently attributed this to young girls following millennial boys supporting Sanders, the divide actually seems to reflect how younger generations are increasingly embracing intersectional feminism. Bernie arguably has a track record and platform more suitable to contemporary feminism’s interwoven demands for racial, LGBT, income, and gender equality than Hillary does.
Take, for instance, Hillary’s interventionist foreign policy as a senator and Secretary of State, which contributed to the decimation of Middle Eastern populations. Or her “welfare reform” support that disproportionately hurt poor women of color. Or her backing of “tough-on-crime” measures that targeted poor men of color.
News coverage has also focused on her profiting from private prisons that exploit disproportionately black inmates for labor, her involvement on the board of Walmart during its era of crushing unions, and of course, the notorious $675,000 she collected from Goldman Sachs for delivering three speeches to its employees.
Today, despite changing her stance on gay marriage in 2013 once it became politically advantageous to do so, Clinton remains unwilling to close the racially-charged War on Drugs by supporting federal marijuana legalization, and only cut ties to private prisons last October.
Bernie, on the other hand, has fought for many initiatives that would disproportionately benefit poor people of color, like free public college, single-payer health care, and a $15 minimum wage — all measures that Hillary has deemed unrealistic. Sanders’ backstory — the child of poor immigrants, with a fairly modest net worth — also better aligns with intersectional feminist ideals than Clinton’s, which is rooted in abundant wealth and privilege, rendering her less relatable to young women shouldering the burdens of student loans and an affordable housing crisis.
The divide between Hillary and young women never felt more pronounced than when she rebuffed the backlash against sexist remarks made by Steinem and Madeline Albright by saying it was just another case of excess political correctness and sensitivity. It was a moment that illustrated just how at odds Clinton has become with many young women, and how Bernie, by comparison, has increasingly seemed like the better choice for needed progress on intersectional feminist causes.
Meanwhile, other forces have enabled the generational chasm to grow even further.
The Power Of The Internet
The Internet and social media have played a critical role in fostering support for Bernie among millennial women. Young women are members of a generation that predominantly receives its information from Internet sources, according to Pew Research Center, whether it’s by streaming TV shows or discovering under-the-radar news stories on social media news feeds. Because the democratized Internet has provided space and a platform for voices routinely marginalized by the mainstream media, it’s exposed young women to new perspectives and issues that, one could argue, have helped enable the rise of intersectional feminism. The Internet has made young women more aware of the kinds of social justice issues that Bernie, more than Hillary, has spent his political career addressing.
It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that recently, it was revealed that Bernie was the overwhelming favorite of the Reddit community. And on Tumblr, a community favored by many millennial women, you’ll find no shortage of heavily shared links to articles about his past: his leadership in anti-segregation organizations and protests; his writing in the ’60s and ’70s on everything from the anti-war movement to acceptance of female sexuality and sexual orientation; his establishment of the first Gay Pride Day in Burlington in 1983 as mayor; and plenty more.
I fully agree with Black Lives Matter activists who point out that Sanders’ passionate history on civil rights can’t be used to overlook his (fairly minimal) shortcomings on race today. But a history of integrity when it comes to social justice is nonetheless encouraging to young feminists who want to know their candidate isn’t just spewing out feminist rhetoric for political advancement; that they are and have always been proponents of racial, sexual, and economic equity since their earliest days.
It’s stories like these that older demographics reliant on TV and radio news are less likely to pick up on. Clinton might have a deafeningly feminist narrative on the surface as a woman who has risen above decades of sexist attacks to achieve success in American politics. But a few Internet searches or deep dives into political Twitter threads easily challenge this narrative.
A New World For Women
In addition to Internet activism, young women have flocked to Bernie because, quite simply, they’ve come to feminist age in a different world than the one Hillary and her older supporters did. As young women, we still of course experience everyday misogyny — but, thankfully, there’s been a decrease in the outright stereotyping and discrimination that previous generations of women had to endure.
Because of this, despite my own misgivings with Clinton, I do empathize with older woman who support her. Their lived experiences with a far more overt and accepted brand of sexism guide them to respect and identify with Clinton on a powerful level because she shared and overcame what they had to.
Further, older women have a greater sense of urgency when it comes to electing the first female president; this may be their only chance to watch a woman get sworn into the Oval Office, whereas many millennials are confident that we’ll see our first female president in our lifetime, even if it’s not in January 2017. This was a fairly prominent mentality among young women surveyed by NPR last month.
To many (and of course, not by any means all) older women, not only is Clinton’s platform the continuation of a Democratic establishment that is progressive compared to what they’ve experienced in the past, but the symbolism of her election compensates for any nameable shortcomings. But many younger women — contrary to accusations that we’re complacent or boy-crazy — are just as, if not more, ambitious than previous generations, striving for equality for every identity group. And to many of us, Sanders’ platform trumps Clinton’s symbolism.
In any case, the generational and gender divides in the Democratic race prove feminism is changing — and inspiring politics to change with it.
More stories from The Establishment’s political series:
Let’s Not Pretend Electing The First Female President Wouldn’t Be Radical
No, White Women, I Will Not Be Voting For Hillary
Why I Prefer Bernie’s Revolution To Hillary’s Boardroom Feminism
When It Comes To Discussing Gender In Politics, Everyone Is Losing
To Move Forward, We Must Stop Enabling The Democratic Party
Stop Telling Marginalized People Who They Must Vote For
Lead image: flickr/DonkeyHotey