The XX Factor

The Head of the DNC Says Young Women Are “Complacent.” She’s Not Totally Wrong.

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Democratic National Convention on September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I spent a lot of 2008 arguing with women like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who couldn’t fathom why younger women weren’t more excited about Hillary Clinton. In a just-published New York Times Magazine interview, Wasserman Schultz was asked whether she sees a generational divide in Clinton support. “Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided,” she replied.

We heard this sort of thing constantly eight years ago, when young women abandoned Clinton for Barack Obama. “What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age,” Gloria Steinem wrote.

This argument isn’t going over any better now than it did then. A barrage of outraged tweets followed the publication of the Times Magazine interview, proving, if nothing else, that younger women are in no way complacent when it comes to the creation of hashtags. I’m surprised, however, to find myself slightly sympathetic to Wasserman Schultz’s frustration, if not to Wasserman Schultz herself.

To be clear: As head of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz has shown egregious favoritism to Hillary Clinton in ways that ultimately hurt the party as a whole. I agree with the progressive group RootsAction, which has collected over 25,000 signatures on a petition calling for Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. “In addition to her recent attempt to deny the Bernie Sanders campaign access to its own voter files, Wasserman Schultz has tried in other ways to minimize competition for her candidate, Hillary Clinton,” says RootsAction. “She has done this by scheduling very few primary debates, and scheduling them at times of low TV viewing.” The Times Magazine interview, in which she implicitly insults Sanders’ female supporters, is just more evidence of her bias.

Nevertheless, now that I’m 40, I understand the exasperation of older Clinton supporters in a way I simply could not at 32. That’s because—in my own, admittedly very privileged experience—it’s only as I approach middle age that I’m aware of what being a woman has cost me. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I enjoyed the same professional attention and opportunities as my male colleagues. I didn’t realize at the time that being treated as an ingénue and being treated as an up-and-comer are not the same thing, and that only one comes with a continuing skyward trajectory. I couldn’t have seen then how so many of the men in my peer group would soar beyond the women, how having children would change my professional prospects, how aging would mean being treated with less respect instead of more. I didn’t know what it was to feel my status falling while that of the men around me rises. As it does, the unending contempt that Clinton receives for her clothes and her hairstyle, for growing older and stouter, have become personal to me in a way they weren’t eight years ago.

I don’t regret supporting Barack Obama then, and I don’t blame the women—of all ages—who support Bernie Sanders today. (If I thought Sanders was electable, I’d be backing him myself.) But when I read the many, many stories about the generational divide over Clinton, in which young women blithely downplay the significance of breaking men’s nearly two-and-a-half-century lock on the presidency, I can’t help but feel that they are, in fact, a little complacent. A Times piece reported on the thoughts of one 19-year-old woman: “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?” I know how she feels, but that only makes me angry and a little sad about how naïve I once was about sexism’s continuing salience. So yeah, fire Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But understand, too, why Clinton matters so much to women like her.