Every primary appears to bring Hillary Clinton steadily closer to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But Clinton hasn’t resonated much with young voters, including young women. In fact, Sanders beats Clinton among young voters overall by as much as 60 points, while Clinton loses young women by about 30 points.
Why? Conventional wisdom suggests these particular voters would prefer a woman who’s explicitly committed to feminist issues over an older white man.
Some offer the interpretation that feminism is dead and that young women don’t support feminist causes or candidates because they are unable to see the discrimination that can still face women or because they don’t think deeply and carefully about the issues. That was Madeline Albright’s point when she quipped that there is a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women. Gloria Steinem invoked the same idea when she explained that young Democratic women “are going where the boys are, and the boys are with Sanders.”
But it’s not just supporters of Clinton who treat women as unable to make thoughtful, reasoned choices. Many Sanders supporters accuse female Clinton supporters of being “vagina voters,” swayed by shared anatomy rather than their candidate’s qualifications and positions.
Of course, no one expects all men – or even all Democratic men – to share political preferences all the time. In the same way, it’s unreasonable to expect women to vote as a monolithic bloc. Unlike other historically marginalized voters, women are not a numerical minority; they make up as large and diverse a portion of the U.S. population as men. Nor do women have a shared history of forced segregation that required them to interact and live primarily with other women, and therefore discuss political ideas as a community.
Women live at the intersection of many different demographic identities, resulting in a broader array of lived experiences than other marginalized people may have, despite sharing a sex. As a result, as anyone who has studied the first two waves of the women’s movement knows, mobilizing women behind a single cause or candidate can be quite difficult.
We tested this hypothesis: Both younger and older women are voting based on their different experiences in life.
We had a chance to test that by adding polling questions to a University of Massachusetts poll of likely voters in Massachusetts conducted in late February. We analyzed correlations between questions asking women if “gender-based sexism had impacted their careers/education”; if “childcare responsibilities had impacted their careers/education”; if they “saw their fate linked to the fate of other women”; and their Democratic candidate preference. Results were statistically significant.
1. Democratic women at every age agree that what happens to women in general will affect them personally.
Even young Sanders supporters believe they share a fate with other women. In fact, the belief in a linked fate is stronger among younger voters and is shared equally by younger Clinton and Sanders supporters.
This could help Clinton in the general election. Recent polling, for example, shows Clinton handily beating Donald Trump in a general election. That’s true in part because the young women who are voting for Sanders in the primary say they would vote for Clinton in the general, alienated by Trump’s sexist comments.
2. Experiences of gender-based discrimination and child care differ by age.
The graph below shows the percentage of Democratic women in different age groups reporting that sexism or child-care needs have hurt their career or education. Note that such experiences are least common among women from 18 to 29: Fewer than 30 percent of young women report such experiences.
That’s not true among women in their 30s and 40s. This is the age range when women are most likely to see their careers stalled and see the highest gender-based pay inequality, especially for women with children. Moreover, mothers in this age group are likely to struggle with ongoing child-care responsibilities, because many are given primary responsibility for young children at home.
Can this pattern help explain why younger women are less likely to support Clinton? Is it because younger women are less likely to report negative consequences of gender discrimination and motherhood?
3. Discrimination and child-care responsibilities influence how Democratic women vote
This pattern is particularly pronounced when women experience discrimination.
Democratic women who said they had been discriminated against because of gender were more likely to choose Clinton over Sanders, even after accounting for ideology, age and income. The graph below shows how large this effect is. Women who agreed that gender discrimination had affected their education or career prospects were nearly 20 points more likely to vote for Clinton than those who disagreed with that statement.
Older women are more likely to report that their education or career had been affected by gender discrimination and caring for children. So it’s no surprise they are voting for Clinton in higher numbers.
4. Young women who have tangled with discrimination and child care are Clinton voters at the same rates as older women
When we examine younger women who do support Clinton, we see that they report having experienced discrimination at rates similar to those reported by older women supporting Clinton.
The following graphs show that at every age group, except for those over 50, Clinton supporters report higher levels of discrimination than Sanders supporters. In most age groups, Clinton supporters report higher levels of child-care responsibilities limiting their choices than do their comparable Sanders supporters.
Yes, women are voting based on what they’ve faced in their own lives
Fewer younger women have seen their prospects limited by discrimination and child-care responsibilities. Here’s what they have faced personally: being part of the generation hardest hit by the Great Recession, and seeing student debt and poor job prospects as major career obstacles.
Women both outnumber and outperform men in college. Their path to early career success has been smoothed over by the feminists who came before them. They haven’t yet hit the point in their careers where they can see an egregious gender gap in pay or when older men stop mentoring them and start treating them as competitors.
Meanwhile, the older women who paved their way were more likely to face overt discrimination in college and in the workplace and to have seen their careers knocked off the fast track when they became parents. Older women have also had more time to serve in leadership positions and wield authority – and to face overt discrimination and harassment as a result.
In other words, the “mother-daughter divide” among Democratic women has less to do with the withering of feminism and more to do with differences in experience.
Democratic women of all ages are selecting the candidate most likely to address the issues that have affected them most personally. No matter the candidate – and whether it’s in the primaries or in the general election – women make up half of the electorate, a vast number with tremendously varied demographics and lives. They vote not just with their anatomy but with their brains.
Lori Poloni-Staudinger is professor and chair of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University and co-author of “American Difference: American Politics from a Comparative Perspective” (CQ Press).
J. Cherie Strachan is professor of political science and public administration at Central Michigan University and co-director of the Consortium for Inter-Campus SoTL Research (CISR).
Brian Schaffner is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow him on Twitter @b_schaffner.