A plea to my fellow Bernie comrades: It's time to start taking left-wing sexism seriously

I'm a pro-Sanders feminist, but I'm dismayed at the sneering condescension shown toward Clinton supporters

Published November 17, 2015 9:23PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/AP/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Lucy Nicholson/AP/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

I don’t know about you, but for me, the raging war between Bernie Bros and the Hillarybots has reached peak absurd. Last week, when I complained on Facebook about anti-Hillary sexism, a pro-Sanders commenter accused me of angling for a job in the Clinton administration. Drats! I exclaimed as I shook my fist. My fiendish plot to secure employment with Team Hillary—which has included such diabolically counterintuitive stratagems as contributing to a forthcoming anthology titled "False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton" and writing a cover piece for the Nation opposing her candidacy—foiled! If it weren’t for those meddling Facebook commenters . . .

On the other side of the coin, also on Facebook, I’ve experienced the joy of having feminism mansplained to me by male Hillary supporters. And the attacks keep coming: on Twitter, journalist Tom Watson vilified me and the other feminist writers of the anti-Hillary book—who include such luminaries as Barbara Ehrenreich and Roxane Gay—as being from “the [Doug] Henwood school of hate.” Ah yes . . . because a book that is written and edited entirely by women, and is in fact about a woman, must, in the end, be all about a dude, ammiright? (Though, to be fair, afterward Watson did offer an apology of sorts). Then for good measure, Garance Franke-Ruta, editor in chief of YahooPolitics, attacked the book’s contributors as “feminists against women in power.”

But as any feminist who has commented on the 2016 election could tell you, such nasty aspersions have been par for the course. Feminists on both sides of the Hillary vs. Bernie contest have had their motives attacked and their feminism mocked and impugned. But there are serious feminist cases to be made for both candidates. In fact, the feminist divide on the 2016 election reflects a classic feminist dilemma between liberal feminists and socialist feminists, and the politics of representation vs. the politics of redistribution.

Essentially, both sides are arguing about that most vital of feminist questions: How do we bring about gender justice? Supporters of Hillary Clinton would likely emphasize the importance of breaking glass ceilings and advancing women’s leadership. They would argue that having more women leaders will help defeat sexism and have a positive impact on women as a class. No woman should be denied leadership opportunities because of her gender—on that principle all feminists would agree. But is having more women in power really a game changer for the average woman?

The record is mixed. History shows that, from political leaders like Margaret Thatcher (who abhorred feminism) to CEOs like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer (who banned feminist-friendly flexible work policies), female leadership is not always pro-woman. In the private sector, there’s little compelling evidence that female leadership benefits the typical woman worker. One study found that a Norwegian law mandating that corporate boards be 40 percent female benefited women at the top, but that those gains did not trickle down to women generally. On the other hand, there is evidence that female elected officials tend to be more supportive of women’s issues and interests, and that female leaders may well produce a role model effect by inspiring girls to aim higher in their educational and professional goals.

But those of us who are socialist feminists are less concerned about glass ceilings than about sticky floors—which is, of course, where most women workers tend to dwell. Socialist feminists are intensely interested in the material conditions of women’s lives and the economic roots of women’s oppression. Our theory of feminist changes holds that the most effective route to women’s liberation lies not in changing the gender composition of the ruling class, but in transforming systems and structures. Some of our key goals include massive wealth redistribution, ending the gendered division of labor, valuing care work, and radically altering workplace policies and norms.

We look to the democratic socialist societies in Europe, which have achieved lower rates of  mortality and economic inequality than the U.S., and where women enjoy a smaller gender wage gap, higher labor force participation, and, yes, more female elected officials, and we think, why can’t we do it here? We know that European-style policies like paid leave, universal childcare, a living wage, strong unions, shorter work hours, and generous social welfare benefits are structurally necessary for women to achieve equality, which is why we so ardently support them.

In practice, of course, many feminists, myself included, share both liberal and socialist goals, supporting women’s leadership as well as substantial economic redistribution and serious workplace reforms. But which candidate you’re supporting in 2016 likely depends on which set of goals you prioritize.The appeal of Hillary Clinton to feminists is obvious. Throughout the long march of feminism over the past half-century, Hillary has been there. Decades before feminism became kinda cool, she identified as an out-and-proud feminist. Electing a woman to the presidency could help normalize female power, and clearly, it means a great deal to millions of American women. I’m a hard-bitten anti-Hillary cynic myself, but even I feel moved when I consider that in 2016, when my two oldest nieces will be voting in a presidential election for the first time, they will likely have the opportunity to cast their votes for a woman president.

But the problem for socialist feminists is that, when it comes to the issues we care most about, Hillary has shown extraordinarily poor judgment. Her record—which includes bashing teachers unions, sitting on the board of Wal-Mart, defending catastrophic welfare “reform,” voting in favor of lower estate taxes and a credit card-friendly bankruptcy bill, and supporting imperialist military adventures like Iraq—raises alarm bells so loud they make your ears hurt.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders has displayed excellent judgment on these core feminist concerns (and many others). Not only has he been a staunch ally on critical feminist issues like choice and equal pay, but he also cast votes against welfare reform, NAFTA, Iraq, bailing out the banks, and other terrible neoliberal policies. He is also far more deeply committed to the economic issues that are crucial to ending the oppression of women. For example, he’s supporting a $15 minimum wage and Kirsten Gillibrand’s paid family leave bill; Hillary has done neither. In the context of a Republican Congress, passing any substantive Democratic legislation is likely to be a doomed exercise. But which candidate do you think would be more aggressive in using executive orders to help workers and rein in the banks? And who do you believe is more likely to make the kind of appointments that are essential to creating progressive public policies?

The feminist case for Bernie Sanders is so compelling that pro-feminist Bernie supporters should be shouting it to the rooftops. And yet, a small but vocal minority of Bernie proponents seem less interested in making this case than in mocking and belittling Hillary-supporting feminists. Sady Doyle, who recently penned a Tumblr post about why she supports Clinton, writes that Bernie supporters responded by calling her “sugarbush” and “sweetie,” making “jokes about me fucking Presidential candidates,” and “screaming about how evil I am.” Sounding like those conservatives who rant that people of color are “the real racists,” Sanders supporter Ari Paul denounced Salon writer Amanda Marcotte as “the real sexist,” claiming that Marcotte is practicing “misogyny” because “Ms. Clinton’s sole defining feature is her genitalia in Ms. Marcotte’s world.”  Salon political writer Ben Norton has opined that “Clinging to your identity group ‘regardless of its policies’ is not politics; it is high-school clique drama.” Also in Salon, Daniel Denvir wrote that “The notion that Hillary Clinton is a feminist choice because she is a qualified woman is a really very caricatured identity politics.”

What these writers conspicuously fail to mention is that in 2008, many of these Hillary-supporting feminists who allegedly vote with their vaginas backed Obama over Clinton. And I am 100 percent confident that the day any of them would ever vote for a female Republican presidential candidate would be the day that (in the immortal words of Claude Porter) hell goes Methodist.

Dudes, here’s a free tip. If you want to discourage Hillary supporters from “clinging” to what you refer to as “identity politics,” willfully misrepresenting their arguments and treating their concerns about sexism so contemptuously won’t exactly do the trick.

The problem with the pro-Bernie knuckleheads—who, again, are a distinct minority of Bernie supporters—is not that these guys disagree politically with Hillaryites. That is a disagreement that I obviously share. It’s their airy denials of what Michelle Goldberg described as ”any claims that sexism shapes perceptions of Clinton,” their haughty dismissals of the value of the first woman president as “mere” symbolism, and their portrayal of feminist Clinton supporters as dumb, shallow chicks who care only about dumb, shallow chick stuff.

When they’re accused of sexism, the Bernie Bros tend to react angrily. But our culture is saturated with misogyny, and there’s no reason to believe the left is immune to it. Sadly, left-wing misogyny has a long and sordid history. Sexism in the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, and then again in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, is what sparked the first and second waves of feminism. Some lefties did—and sometimes still do—dismiss feminism as bourgeois triviality. Some white men on the left assume that they, and they alone, are the bearers of universal egalitarian values.

By the same token, when Hillary supporters impugn the feminism of women who support Bernie, that is gross and completely unacceptable. I have personally been on the receiving end of these kinds of attacks, and they make me furious. And I hate it when Hillary and her supporters make bogus charges of sexism, as they sometimes do. Yet I have to say, I’ve seen many sexist smears of Hillary backers perpetrated by the Bernie Bros, but relatively few nasty attacks on pro-Bernie women by Hillary-supporting feminists.

For those of us who back Bernie, a debate about whether (some) Bernie supporters are sexist or not is absolutely not the one we want to be having. The first rule of advocating for any cause is “don’t be an asshole to potential converts,” but unfortunately a few pro-Bernie types are gleefully abandoning this principle. What I find so deeply frustrating is that, in my experience, if you scratch beneath the surface of a feminist Clinton supporter, what you’ll often find is someone who is very much open to Bernie. On countless occasions, I’ve heard pro-Clinton women admit that they like Bernie a lot, and that their politics are actually far closer to his than to Hillary’s. The longing for the kind of socialist alternative Bernie represents is palpable. And polls confirm Bernie’s appeal to women: they show that Bernie’s supporters, like Hillary’s, are about equally divided between men and women.

So here’s some unsolicited advice to my pro-Bernie comrades. When you’re arguing the case for Bernie, lay off the petulant sniping and ugly personal attacks, and stick to policy and ideas. Focus on the contrast between Hillary’s crappy record and Bernie’s stellar one; Bernie’s strong, substantive proposals for a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and breaking up the banks, vs. Hillary’s weak, vague or nonexistent ones. Ask them what incentive Hillary will have to move left if there’s no organized pressure, in the form of Sanders and his supporters, for her to do so. And finally, remember that when you portray feminist desires for a female president as illegitimate, and treat feminist Hillary supporters with sneering condescension, you do great damage to our cause. That should alarm you. Unless, that is, you care more about puffing up your own ego than advancing socialist politics.

By Kathleen Geier

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2016 Democratic Primary 2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Feminism Hillary Clinton The Left