Last week, a New York Times article featured this headline: “Moms and Daughters Debate Gender Factor in Hillary Clinton’s Bid.” The thrust of the article is that older women are more gung-ho about Clinton’s presidential candidacy than are younger women. Here’s a representative passage:
Barbara Schierenbeck, a 59-year-old nurse in Brooklyn, is swept up in the excitement of potentially electing Hillary Clinton the first female president. She cannot understand why her 19-year-old daughter, Anna, does not feel the same way.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, no one would even think about a woman being president,” Mrs. Schierenbeck said. “Certainly, when I was 20 years old in the 1970s, I don’t think I would even have thought about it.”
But for her daughter, electing a woman, while a nice idea, is not a motivating factor. “I want to see someone who, like, has the fervor to fight for me,” Anna Schierenbeck said. A woman will be elected president “pretty soon” anyway, she said, regardless of what happens in 2016. Why does that woman have to be Mrs. Clinton?
And also this one:
Meghan Speed, a 20-year-old college junior from Concord, N.C., said she expected a woman to be elected president in the next 20 years, but planned to vote for Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary because of his record on issues like income inequality.
It’s entirely plausible that older women feel a more urgent need to elect a woman, compared to their daughters’ generation. But at the same time, there is some important context that the article doesn’t discuss, and that puts any generation gap in a different light.
The article compares only older women to younger women. Let’s introduce a different point of comparison: men. Below is the percent of Democrats who support Clinton (as opposed to Sanders or O’Malley) in all the YouGov/Economist polls conducted since Vice President Biden declared he would not be a candidate:
Older Democrats, both men and women, are more likely to support Clinton than any other Democratic candidate. Younger men and women are less likely to do so — largely because, like Meghan Speed, many support Sanders.
But equally striking is that women of all generations favor Clinton more than men do. The New York Times emphasizes Clinton’s challenges among younger women. But compared to younger men, what’s most striking is younger women’s support for Clinton.
The New York Times piece would might also leave you with the impression that younger women have a somewhat anemic feminist spirit, at least compared with their female elders. And perhaps they do in some respects. But in other respects, the opposite is true.
Pew Research Center surveys have asked whether people agree or disagree that “Women should return to their traditional roles in society.” Younger women are the most likely to strongly disagree with this. In the 2012 survey, 77 percent of women under 30 strongly disagree, compared to 61 percent of men under 30 and compared to 64 percent of women ages 30 to 44, 57 percent ages 45 to 64, and 48 percent of those 65 and older.
The same pattern holds if we focus only on Democrats: 82 percent of Democratic women under 30 strongly disagree that women should return to traditional roles. Only 47 percent of Democratic women over 65 strongly disagree with this.
Here’s more evidence of the feminist spirit of younger women. In November 2012, the American National Election Study asked women whether “what happens generally to women in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?” Political scientists refer to this type of question as measuring one’s sense of “linked fate” with a group.
Again, younger women were the most likely to perceive linked fate. Among women under 30, 73 percent agreed with this statement. Among women over 65, 58 percent did so. The same divide was evident among Democratic women.
The ANES also asked people: “Would it be good, bad, or neither good nor bad if the United States has a woman president in the next 20 years?” Again, women under 30 were the most likely to say that it would be good, compared to any age group of men or women.
Put all this data together, and you arrive with a portrait of younger women distinctly different than what this New York Times story suggests. Yes, many younger women may favor Sanders over Clinton right now. Some may put other considerations ahead of gender.
But at the same time, young women’s support for Clinton exceeds that of men’s — suggesting that gender may actually provide a boost for Clinton among this demographic. Moreover, younger women’s feminist sensibilities appear quite strong, and stronger even than those of older generations.
Ultimately, the “daughters” may prove far from sanguine about a potential Clinton presidency.