Nina Henry ’19
Gender has become a highly polarizing force in this presidential election, more so than any other in history. No one was particularly surprised to see a split among partisan lines – this is the race that gave us threats to defund Planned Parenthood, overturn Roe v. Wade and, in the words of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, “blood coming out of her whatever.”
However, the recent infighting within the Democratic Party came as a shock to many, as both Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a great deal of common ground on women’s issues. The debate has centered around one key question: should women vote for a woman president?
Of course, it is not a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Former Secretary of State and ambassador Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem ’52, who both support Secretary Clinton, ignited an Internet firestorm with their controversial statements regarding gender essentialism.
Secretary Albright, repeating one of her most famous quotes from her decades of public service, told an audience of Clinton supporters, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Her comment was quickly decontextualized: “Albright Tells Female Supporters of Sanders to Go to Hell,” read one headline.
In an eloquent and self-deprecating editorial for the New York Times, Albright apologized and explained that the “other” she was referring to was not Secretary Clinton but other American women, whom she believed would be best served by Clinton’s policies.
“I absolutely believe what I said, that women should help one another, but this was the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line. I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based solely on gender,” Albright wrote.
Steinem’s comments are harder to understand and, frankly, difficult to excuse. Speaking off the cuff on the Real Time with Bill Maher show, she joked that young women are supporting Sanders because “that’s where the boys are.” She quickly apologized and posted on Facebook that, “Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.”
Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times, brought some historical perspective. “The idea of a woman as president is a very important marker for people who grew up in a time when medical schools had tiny quotas for female students, newspapers had “help wanted” ads that divided everything by sex and half the population could get credit only in their husband’s or father’s name. Younger women don’t seem to share that yearning, and there are wounded feelings on both sides.” This is not to say that younger women are less feminist or historically informed, only that their political participation comes in a very different context.
Clinton herself addressed the controversy during the most recent debate and vehemently dismissed the idea that women should support her on gender alone. Like Steinem, she repeated that she was excited to see the passion so many young women have for politics, regardless of their preference of candidate. “I feel very strongly that I have an agenda, have a record that really does respond to a lot of specific needs that the women in our country face,” she said. “I’m going to keep making that case, but I have no argument with anyone making up her mind about who to support.”
Personally, I’ve experienced the flip side of the coin. I have been sneeringly asked countless times if I’m volunteering, organizing and voting for Secretary Clinton just because we’re both women. The question is so sexist that it leaves me stunned. I support her because, in 1995, facing fierce domestic opposition, Hillary Clinton redefined the importance of women’s rights in the international eye. I support her because she is the only candidate who introduced legislation to expand and protect reproductive rights and was endorsed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL. I support her because she’s the only candidate who testified before Congress to defend abortion as a key part of reproductive healthcare. I support her because she refuses to divorce “women’s issues” from issues of income equality, racial justice, economic security and human rights. I support her because she’s the only candidate to take on the Hyde Amendment. So no, I don’t just support her because she’s a woman. I believe Clinton is simply the most qualified candidate.
However, I’ll admit that there is something inherently exciting about the prospect of a woman president. Representation is powerful. The Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti wrote, “Only in a sexist society would women be told that caring about representation at the highest levels of government is wrong.” I resent the assumption that I only support my candidate out of gender solidarity, but I have to balance that with the deep respect and recognition I feel for Clinton’s personal struggles against sexism.
I am proud and excited about the disproportionately high involvement of young women in the grassroots of this race, whether it’s for Hillary or Bernie. We must reject the deeply insulting and sexist rhetoric coming from supporters on both sides accusing young women of being “anti-feminist.” Our decisions should not be scorned, especially not in the name of “feminism.”
At the same time, the historical nature of this race is impossible to deny. As Gail Collins wrote, “If the younger voters who are flocking to Bernie Sanders don’t share their elders’ intense feelings about needing to elect a woman president right now, it’s partly because Hillary Clinton helped create a different world.”