Hillary Clinton’s 11-point loss to Bernie Sanders among female voters in New Hampshire has highlighted a conundrum for many women: How should gender factor into their decision-making when one of their own is on the ballot?
Before the primary, the notion of voting for a woman because she is a woman — decried by some as sexist and a backward step for womanhood — had led to a “level of tension” among feminists, according to Lauren Bruce, founder of the Feministe website and a former blogger there.
As the two-way race shaped up between Clinton and Sanders, many feminists were “playing their cards close to their chest,” Bruce said. For some, she said, it felt “a little taboo to be supporting the old white guy.”
Others would support Clinton, they said, because she has what it takes to break the ultimate glass ceiling — views they agree with, qualifications for the job and the right DNA.
“A lot of people are not examining their own sexism in their rejection of her,” said Kate Harding, who made the case for electing Clinton last spring in an article for the online women’s magazine Dame headlined, “I Am Voting With My Vagina.”
For many female Democrats, voting for Clinton represents a more complex calculation: There’s the gender-neutral argument — that the former secretary of state, senator and first lady is the most qualified candidate to run the country. And there’s the women’s-interests argument — that Clinton is attuned to causes close to their hearts, such as abortion rights and equal pay.
Some women remain troubled by the questions, rekindled recently by Donald Trump, about whether Clinton betrayed feminist values in defending her husband’s presidency against his female accusers. And many younger voters see Clinton as having risen to power on an outdated form of feminism that emphasized getting ahead in the workplace but paid less heed to race and economic inequities. Who’s home with the kids, those young activists ask, when wealthy white women ascend the career ladder?
During her campaign, Clinton has sharpened the gender politics she embraced from its beginning, presenting herself as a mother and grandmother and an advocate for women’s rights, as well as the woman who can open a new door for every little girl.
“Yes, finally fathers will be able to say to their daughters, ‘You, too, can grow up to be president,’ ” Clinton announced in October in the first Democratic debate.
That is “campaign hooey,” Harding said. But the sentiment resonates with many feminists who describe being shocked by what they saw as sexism leveled against Clinton in 2008, whether it was criticism of her cankles or her speaking style.
Endorsements from prominent women’s rights organizations including Planned Parenthood Action and the Feminist Majority reflect the support of the feminist establishment. But the rallying cry around which feminism united in the 1960s — “the personal is political” — is haunting the presidential prospects of one of that movement’s prime beneficiaries. Even as she looks ahead to states where she has a clear advantage, Clinton may face questions stemming from her husband’s presidency.
Where, asked Monica Lewinsky in a 2014 Vanity Fair article, “were the feminists back then?”
The answer, according to feminist iconoclast Camille Paglia, lies in “a very incestuous” bond that Paglia alleges existed between mainstream feminism and the mainstream media and united them behind the Clintons.
The difference today, Paglia said, is that the Internet has given voice to a range of women’s views that undermine such centralized messaging. Hence the recent attacks from Bill Clinton’s old accusers, Paglia said. One of them, Kathleen Willey, launched a website last year, A Scandal a Day, designed to sound “the alarm about the potential danger of Hillary Clinton becoming president.”
Some of the controversy stems not from old enemies — Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” — but from the archived papers of the former first lady’s close friend Diane Blair, a political scientist who kept extensive notes about their phone calls and interactions during the Clintons’ White House years. After Blair’s death in 2000, her husband donated the collection to the University of Arkansas.
From those papers, brought to public attention by the Washington Free Beacon in 2014, come Blair’s recollections that Clinton called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony tune”; that the first lady argued that while the president’s relationship with the 22-year-old intern “was gross inappropriate behavior . . . it was consensual (was not a power relationship)”; and that she was tired of “all those whiney women” when she needed Sen. Bob Packwood’s support in her efforts to overhaul the nation’s health-care system — an apparent reference to women who had accused the senator of harassment.
“It’s a disappointment,” Mary Heffernan, founder of the Oregon chapter of the NARAL abortion rights group and one of Packwood’s many accusers, said in an interview.
“She was so wrapped up in the health care, I sort of get the ‘Oh no, this timing is terrible,’ ” said Heffernan, who now works as a consultant on conflict resolution and described herself as an undecided Democrat. “But it is interesting that the response is to dismiss the women,” she said, adding that when people “are in a marginalized position like women in sexual misconduct, when does that become the larger goal?”
Clinton’s campaign did not return calls for comment about the Blair papers.
The Clinton’s White House history means little to younger female voters.
Brooke Wojdynski, 25, national committeewoman for the Ohio Young Democrats group, remembered knowing Lewinsky’s name mostly because it rhymed with hers — schoolkids would tease her as “Brooke Lewinsky” — but she has few if any memories of impeachment or of Hillary Clinton’s actions.
“I was so not in tune. I didn’t even know the word ‘feminist,’ ” said Wojdynski, who describes herself as an undecided voter. She has learned more of that background now, but she said it won’t play a role in her election decision.
“From a millennial perspective, it’s a hazy thing,” she said.
That doesn’t mean young feminists are rallying behind the idea of electing the first woman to the White House. According to New Hampshire primary exit polling reported by CBS, Sanders beat Clinton by nearly 60 points among women ages 18 to 29.
Clinton is a standard-bearer for women’s success in the workplace, which was the focus of the movement Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan led in the 1960s. Clinton embraced that “second wave” feminism in the lead-up to the New Hampshire vote by looking to Steinem and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright to champion her candidacy.
But many younger female activists unite around a third wave of feminism that is focused on broader concerns about social justice. From that “intersectional” point of view, Clinton’s Wall Street funding and 1 percent lifestyle seem unappealing.
Voting for a woman just because she is a woman “could backfire on every other woman in the country,” said Alexis Isabel Moncada, a Miami-area teen who runs the Twitter account @feministculture, which has become a popular forum for intersectional feminists.
Women, as New Hampshire and Iowa have shown, don’t vote en bloc.
Nor do they believe that electing a woman will necessarily advance women’s causes. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found just 38 percent of women said getting more women elected to office is a top priority for improving women’s lives, ranking far lower than other issues such as access to child care and equal pay.
And while a recent Pew survey on women and leadership showed that 70 percent of female Democrats say they hope to see a female president in their lifetimes, 55 percent of those voting in New Hampshire demonstrated their willingness to wait beyond 2016.