Bernie Sanders’ victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primaries pointed to the overwhelming support Sanders has among young women—Sanders garnered 53 percent of the female vote overall, compared with Clinton’s 46 percent. Among women under 45, Sanders received 69 percent of votes; among women under 30, he got 82 percent.
So what is it that draws young women—women such as myself—to Bernie Sanders? Hillary, after all, is the first viable female Democratic candidate to run for president. Do we not understand the historic significance of this race and the power of representation? Second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright will suggest we are naïve, or even ungrateful for the hard work done by our predecessors who have paved the way for a woman to run for the highest office in the land. Fear not! Feminism is alive and well among us millennials and has the stamp of our era. We have a hard time rallying behind Hillary because we see her as a part of a political elite that has done the utmost psychological, environmental, and economic damage to this country.
Michelle Goldberg’s Slate piece “I Used to Hate Hillary. Now I’m Voting For Her” offers a perspective that is worth challenging when it comes to young female voters’ lack of support for Hillary. Goldberg writes, “It certainly seems more fun to be on the side of political revolution than dour pragmatism.” I couldn’t disagree more—there is nothing fun about feeling completely insecure and fed up with a rigged system. Goldberg states that Sanders’ politics are “more or less [her] own,” but is moved by Hillary’s history of struggle and perseverance; she gets knocked down over and over, but still can’t be shaken. “For a progressive,” Goldberg writes, “how much you reconcile conflicting truths about Clinton depends, to some extent, on how much you empathize with her.”
I am pleased that Goldberg brings empathy into the equation, because empathy and compassion are cornerstones of feminism. Woman to woman, I empathize with Hillary. Her life has been no picnic. Her perseverance, grit, remarkable intelligence, and much of her professional record are commendable. But do I think she should be given a pass because she’s had a tough time in the boys’ club? Should voters—female or male, young or old—support her candidacy in the primaries even when we have serious misgivings about her record? No, we should not.
To me, being a feminist means rejecting—or at a minimum taking to task—the power of the military industrial complex to orchestrate politics and economics in the U.S. and throughout the world. It means being alarmed that Hillary takes pride in getting foreign policy guidance from Henry Kissinger, a man whom the late Christopher Hitchens in The Trial of Henry Kissinger called out “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” Empathy compels me to think about the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi women and children whose lives were thrown into utter chaos and devastation after the majority of U.S. senators, including then Sen. Hillary Clinton, voted in favor of the Iraq War resolution in 2002. I empathize with the women and children of a lawless Libya where Secretary Clinton zealously pushed for a NATO-led intervention to remove Muammar Qaddafi without negotiations, causing a vacuum of power to the avail of predatory forces like ISIS and other warring rebel factions.
Bernie Sanders’ record shows that he takes a much more thoughtful and cautious approach to military engagement. He has been criticized for not having enough foreign policy experience, even though he has been in Congress since 1991 and has voted on matters ranging from Cold War policies to military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He believes that military options should be the last option. This viewpoint is refreshing for a generation that can barely remember life before 9/11 and has witnessed the constant and seemingly endless warfare and terrorist threats that followed it.
The bulk of young Bernie supporters are most drawn to his tireless commitment to taking on the big banks and Wall Street. They like that he dares to challenge the economic system. I empathize with my generation, which is well-educated but shackled with debt. The class of 2015 is the most indebted graduating class ever, with debt averaging just over $35,000 per student. The steadily rising amounts of debt are compounded by the precarious nature of the job market. Millennials make up a large part of what development economist Guy Standing calls the precariat: a class “characterized by chronic uncertainty and insecurity.” This loose aggregate of people—sometimes called the 99 percent—are, in Standing’s view, “united in rejecting old mainstream political traditions.” Bernie’s campaign represents a rejection of the status quo and a plea for something different. When he talks about a political revolution, he is tapping into the anxieties and vulnerabilities of the precariat class. Clinton’s close ties to Wall Street identify her as part of the establishment—to those very institutions that are drowning us in debt and vulnerability.
Bernie Sanders’ platform on economic redistribution and taking on the banks is palpably exciting for my generation. I am attracted to his message and to his commitment to change, but at the same time, I am well aware that he will be hard-pressed to deliver on his promises for free education and “Medicare for all.” Nonetheless, supporting him and his ideas are a way to disrupt and challenge this country’s priorities. It is difficult to say whether he is electable or not, but at this early and critical point in the primaries, we should not try to clip his wings and dismiss his candidacy. We should examine what this movement is and why he is gaining so much unexpected momentum. There was a time not so long ago when pundits said that Barack Obama—a black American man whose middle name is Hussein—was unelectable. History needs to take its course. We can clearly see that Bernie’s numbers are soaring and he is tapping into something very raw in this country.
Feminism is a worldview that understands and critiques power. Women should join movements that align with economic justice, environmental protections, and basic human rights, while still maintaining the perspective of our lived experiences as women. I see this happening with the wide support for Bernie Sanders among young female voters. Female supporters of Hillary should be happy that the women’s movement laid the groundwork for feminists like me to engage critically in power and political life—and so I call on my fellow feminists not to let our bridges Bern.