Hillary, Bernie, women and men: Hey, guys -- gender politics are central to this race, not a footnote

As women debate the Clinton candidacy, it's time for men to own up to the gender issues we don't see or understand

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 13, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton    (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

I'm not sure about this, but I'm starting to wonder whether gender is playing a role in the Democratic primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. What do you think?

Very funny, I know. In the wake of Sanders' blowout victory in New Hampshire, I have had impassioned exchanges about this subject with almost every woman I know — with my mother, with my editor, with my two closest female friends and with numerous writers and journalists from the film world, the political world or the literary world who I know mainly through social media. Some support Clinton, some support Sanders and others feel torn and waver back and forth. One friend told me she had been rooting for Sanders since his campaign began, but now that Clinton looked like the underdog she felt guilty and was switching her allegiance. There was no unanimity about anything except for the fact that this is a big moment for feminism, for gender relations and for women in America.

On Tuesday night, as I drove to Sanders’ election-night headquarters in Concord, a caller to New Hampshire Public Radio said she was amazed and disturbed that younger women tended to favor Sanders, and that she thoroughly embraced Madeleine Albright's comment about the ultimate destination of women who fail to support other women. “We are on the verge of revolutionary change here,” she said, definitely not referring to the revolution that involved feeling the Bern. “Some women seem to believe it just doesn't matter.” On Wednesday morning, when I turned the radio on for my long drive to New York, the conversation was not over. Another woman called in to say that she was insulted by suggestions that she should support Clinton because of her gender, and said that the fact that so many younger women felt at liberty to vote on issues of conscience and core principle was a victory for feminism.

I suppose those women can’t both be right, in terms of the underlying moral and political question: Does the historic moment presented by Bernie Sanders’ left-populist insurrection trump the historic opportunity to elect our first female president? It’s in the nature of generational change for people on either side of the divide to mistrust each other. But on a perceptual level it struck me that they were both pursuing the same goal: women’s freedom and equality, a larger victory that would not belong to a candidate or a party, but to all women and all Americans. I was grateful to hear their voices, and when I was on the ground in New Hampshire I tried to talk to as many women as possible.

I can only assume that these conversations I have heard are taking place by the hundreds of thousands, or by the millions, in office cubicles and break rooms and schools and coffee shops, in West Tennessee and on the Upper West Side. Whoever wins, I am beginning to suspect that the soul-searching about gender (and the different but related discussions we are about to have regarding race) are the most important and most resonant aspects of this campaign, and cannot be separated from the big questions of economic injustice and inequality that have propelled the Sanders surge.

That is not a crypto-endorsement of Hillary Clinton, by the way. I share the widespread mistrust of Clinton, the sense that she cannot entirely be trusted, that is apparently felt by about half the American population. But when I examine that perception with as much objectivity as I can muster, I am forced to conclude that it is shaped by her unique status and by the strange and singular trajectory of her career in public life. In other words, I can’t help seeing her through the lens of gender politics, because she is our first and only serious female presidential candidate. None of us can help doing that. (She is the first and only serious female candidate for the second time, which is not irrelevant. I think we all have moments of “enough already with this lady.”)

I have said several times that I still think Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee, in part because the nomination process has been rigged to favor an institutional insider. I am also dubious about the assurances of ultimate party unity and the claims that, gosh, no matter who wins “we” will be in great shape. I believe the Sanders-Clinton clash has exposed a profound ideological gulf within the left-liberal Democratic coalition, which has been kept under wraps for many years. In a series of recent tweets, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie laid out a hypothesis that the Democrats now face a Hobson’s choice between two deeply problematic candidates with limited general-election appeal, and that this could be the year when the party’s purported demographic advantage in national elections evaporates. I have to say, that’s plausible. Right now, the Democrats had better hope the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, because their other guys all have a pretty good shot at beating either Clinton or Sanders.

I don’t think the gender question will determine the outcome of the Clinton-Sanders campaign, and there are abundant reasons to support or oppose each of them that have nothing to do with the fact that one of them is a woman and the other a man. But even to me that sounds faintly like an attempt to brush off the issue, which is much more than a sideshow or a footnote. I want to say clearly that it’s important for men to listen on this issue more than we talk. (Yeah, I know – here I am, with 1,000 words or more to tell you what I think! Contradictions abound.)

When women talk to each other, or to men, about sexism and misogyny and the less visible kinds of gendered discourse or perception that affect their lives, the resulting cloud of male defensiveness and male bluster makes it hard to see anything clearly, including Bernie and Hillary and each other. I’m not claiming to be exempt; I have overreacted to criticism from women more than once. But the way to “man up” in this context (if I may), even when you feel you’re being unfairly attacked, is to step back and try as hard as you can to reflect on why someone perceives your words or actions as she does, what unconscious assumptions you may have started with that made that possible, and how the larger social history of men and women in America shaped this moment of conflict.

That isn’t easy. Nothing about gender discourse is easy. What lies behind the phenomenon of “mansplaining” — a new word, but not a new thing — is the deeply ingrained male reluctance to say the words “I don’t know.” In my parents’ generation, there was the running gag about how men always refused to stop and ask directions, even when they were hopelessly lost. Maybe that was a dumb sexist caricature, but my dad was a classic example. Hell, I was a classic example, for much of my adult life. Then came the invention of consumer-grade GPS technology, and dads all over the planet sank to the knees of their Dockers, their sweatpants and their stretchy black Levis in thanks.

But this is a moment, guys, to own our ignorance and to talk about all the things we don’t know. Some of them are super-obvious, but a great many are less so. Because it isn’t just American women who are turning the Sanders-Clinton race into a debate on gender politics. Men are doing that too, but we don’t always notice it or acknowledge it. The only good thing you can say about the Internet trolls who have abused progressive women for supporting Clinton is that they have dragged this issue into the public eye, although in the ugliest possible fashion.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and as banal as that is to say, it’s something that a lot of men simply look past, on the left as on the right. I don’t know what it’s like to have experienced an era of dynamic change, in which many doors have been blown open, but also to feel that a double standard still applies to ambitious and successful woman that does not affect men. I don’t know why Britain, Germany, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil and a host of smaller nations have elected female heads of state while an impermeable barrier has endured in the United States. (Let’s acknowledge that the only female British prime minister to date was a special and dreadful case.) Without getting involved in throwing stones from a glass house, some of those countries are not paragons of feminist progress.

I don’t know, on any gut personal level, how much the calculated, chameleonic public persona of Hillary Clinton has been shaped by years of attacks and misogynistic jokes and outlandish conspiracy theories. I don’t know how she has been changed by decades of feeling compelled to play a series of gender-specific roles in order to convince the public she was actually female: She was a Southern wife (with a put-on accent) who stood by her straying husband; she was a cookie-baking First Lady; more recently she is a grandma who would rather be playing with the progeny of her progeny than debating fiscal policy with a garrulous old dude she clearly believes is a little dumber than she is. I don’t know what it’s like to be accused of being “inauthentic” by those who demanded that you be inauthentic.

I don’t know how much of Hillary Clinton’s innate political caution, and her allegiance to the elite moneyed caste of Westchester County and Georgetown, derives from those aspects of her experience that I don’t know about. I don’t know whether her apparent cluelessness about those Goldman Sachs speaking fees or Henry Kissinger or the State Department emails or other issues where she has made unforced political errors stems entirely from the defensive posture born of enduring years of sexist abuse, or reflects something worse than that. I don’t know that I can ever trust my own conclusions about that. Were the factors that created an opening on Hillary Clinton’s left for a charismatic male opponent in 2008, and did so again (if we adjust the definition of charisma) in 2016, influenced or created by issues of gender politics or gendered perception that are invisible to many men? Again, I don’t know, but I know how many women would answer that.

I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton’s gender is a political asset or a liability or a neutral factor in the 2016 race, and I don’t think she does either. Last week in New Hampshire I saw her speak to the historic importance of her candidacy before a group of college students, most of them female (and pretty clearly leaning toward Sanders). It was moving, and sounded convincing. On Thursday night in Milwaukee, she said that she wasn’t asking anyone to vote for her because of her gender, and that sounded convincing too. (I’m definitely convinced that she wishes Albright and Gloria Steinem had not said what they said.)

I don’t know whether, if Elizabeth Warren were running as the left alternative to Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders, Warren would have won a 22-point victory in New Hampshire and we wouldn’t be talking about any of this right now. That’s an intriguing comeback to the suggestion that anti-Clinton sentiment on the left is imbued with sexism or anti-feminist treachery. But it’s also an unknowable and imaginary scenario, one that occurs in a world where we have more than one plausible female presidential candidate. Did Warren decide not to run largely because she was unwilling to deal with all the stuff Hillary Clinton has dealt with, and because she did not want to become what Hillary Clinton has become? Well, I don’t know that either, but I have my suspicions.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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