Hillary Clinton doesn't speak for me: I'm a millennial woman raising a biracial son. I voted for Bernie, and I refuse to be shamed for it

White feminists identify with Hillary Clinton, but it's Bernie Sanders who identifies with us all

Published March 24, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Just after Super Tuesday, a family friend and Hillary supporter sent an article to me and a dozen other millennial women, rightly assuming that most of us were Bernie supporters. She asked us what we younger women thought of the essay. Several weeks later, Hillary has won many more primary delegates than Bernie, and has cinched almost all the unelected superdelegates, but millennials are still voting 2-to-1 for her anti-establishment rival.

Hana Schank, who wrote the article “My Gen-X Hillary problem: I know why we don’t 'like' Clinton” argues that millennial women support Bernie because they think we’ve moved beyond sexism. Given a couple more decades in the professional world, these young women would feel the same low-level, “insidious" discrimination Schank experiences and realize just how monumental and necessary electing a woman is.

While I couldn’t agree more that we are far from a post-sexist world, Schank’s essay sidesteps over other measures of inequality and glosses over just how sprawling and varied an affliction sexism still is in this country. She sees her struggle in Hillary's, but forgets that many American women do not and never will — that neither Hillary’s platform nor Hillary’s life speaks to those women.

Even issues rooted in gender inequality (like access to reproductive healthcare) are defined by the intersections of gender, race and class. A pro-woman candidate must understand how racism and an economy of the 1 percent impact all women in color and class-specific ways. I think millennial women intuitively understand that Hillary is not that candidate.

As younger women, perhaps we're also less burdened by the tug of being so close to winning the old fight and freer to imagine a new fight entirely. (As Robert Reich put it: Hillary is “the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we ought to have.”) Supporting him doesn’t mean we're naive or that we fail to understand the realities of our time.

Schank is right: Hillary’s election would be monumental. But the right wing is campaigning in terms of real lives lost and rights revoked. Now is not the time to seek out monuments. The next Democratic candidate – whether male or female – must be able to beat a Republican nominee whose racism and classism will undoubtedly disproportionately harm women (check out all of their records and positions here). I think millennials intuitively understand that Bernie – not Hillary – commands the fervor needed to beat Trump.

I’m a millennial woman raising a biracial son who will not share the privilege of my skin. Race is one of many conversations I have the privilege of opting out of. I vote as a woman. But I also vote as my son’s mother; I vote as a feminist in solidarity with women who lead less privileged lives than my own. I voted for Bernie, and I refuse to be shamed for that. Here’s why.

ONE: This election isn’t about gender

Hillary’s political career has been impressive and groundbreaking for American women. But it is astonishing (and disappointing) that in a race where the most likely Republican nominee is a billionaire endorsed by the KKK, middle-aged white feminists are campaigning to make sexism the primary issue.

Klan chapters more than doubled from 2014 to 2015; hate groups are on the rise in general. Last year saw the highest rate of young black men killed by police. Already, my son is five times more likely to be killed by police than if he were white. He’s more likely to be searched by police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be sent to adult prison as a juvenile, and more likely to receive longer sentences for the same convictions. He’s more likely to have his voting rights revoked. Even as a man, he’s likely to be paid less than me, because he’s black. Sexism still simmers and seethes, yes. But racism and economic inequality have reached a boiling point in this country.

Trump is conservative America’s backlash to seeing a black man hold the Oval Office for eight years. And in some way that white Democrats will never, ever admit, Hillary is liberal America’s backlash to seeing a black man hold the Oval Office for eight years. Now that Obama’s presidency has presumably relieved 400 years of white guilt, middle-aged white feminists are clamoring for their turn. These women are willing to elect a symbol of progress that makes them feel good, forgetting just how much is on the line – we’re talking coerced deportation, state-sanctioned lynchings and torture, and the eradication of free speech. Their defenses of Hillary do not address any of these race- and class-based aggressions, but they’re willing to shame and condescend to younger women who feel like paying women a living wage is a realer “feminism” than supporting Hillary’s career ambitions.

TWO: Hillary doesn’t represent anyone but you

The women I hear vehemently supporting Hillary are the women who look like her. They are white. They are baby boomers like Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright. They are Generation X-ers, like Schank. They know what it’s like to compete for a white-collar job against a man. They know what it’s like to be spoken down to, even once you’ve gotten the job. They identify with Hillary, and they feel like they’ve waited long enough to see someone like them take the Oval Office. Supporting an elite, white woman’s career ascent is the type of feminism they recognize, because it’s the type of feminism they’ve lived.

Schank opens her essay with a photo of herself meeting Bill Clinton two decades ago: “In 1992, as a summer intern with the Clinton campaign’s polling firm, I traveled to New York City for the Democratic convention,” she writes. Though she found Hillary’s die-hards “extremely off-putting,” she identified with the first-lady-to-be: “She was the type of person I expected to grow up to be – a working mother who wore suits, supported herself financially, and had an equal say in her marriage,” Schank writes.

And Schank did grow up to be like Hillary. In 1992 she already had enough going for her to land an internship with the Clinton campaign and travel to New York. In 2016, she’s a tech consultant who runs her own company. It’s not surprising, then, that for her a turning point in the 2016 primary came when she heard a male town-hall participant address Hillary in Iowa, with what sounded like condescension. Schank writes: “It was a tone I’d heard countless times over the course of my career, and in that moment I suddenly saw Hillary Clinton in an entirely different light.” At this moment, Schank sees Hillary suffer a brand of sexism she herself recognizes well. For Schank, a man’s condescension toward such a senior and accomplished woman proves how far we are from being post-sexist and how monumental Hillary’s election would be.

This is the unconscious self-association with Hillary that older women wish millennials would feel. “Don’t you see that Hillary is one of us, and has the same struggle we have?” they say. “Won’t it feel good to see someone like us in the White House?” They assume that because she is their candidate, she should be the candidate of women-at-large. They assume that because she speaks to them, she must speak for all American women. They’re so close to nominating a woman who represents them, it’s hard to acknowledge she might not represent most American women.

(Even the incessant talk of Hillary’s experience is symptomatic of this: Hillary spent only eight years in Congress and eight years as a diplomat, compared to Bernie’s 35 years as mayor, congressman and senator. What her supporters mean when they say she has more experience is that she has more of the type of experience with which they are familiar.)

This is the same absent-minded assumption of majority membership that Trump’s “silent” one holds, and it’s a dangerous gateway. Assume your experience is the universal standard, and all other experiences start to look less worthy of regard. Those who look like you seem safe, and all others start to look threatening. To think of yourself as the prototype for what it means to be a woman in America is the on-ramp to a host of unspoken prejudices that this election season actually is about, like race and class.

Women who grow up to be like Hillary aren’t the only women in America. Women who grow up to be like Hillary aren’t even the majority of women in America. Women who grow up to be like Hillary are actually the minority of women in America.

Whether or not she secures the nomination, white feminists' loyalty to Hillary belies a deeper spiritual problem: their desire to elect a woman whose experience matches their own. It is easy to champion someone you identify with, a candidate who feels like one of your own. It’s more difficult to put your own aspirations on hold and recognize that a different candidate might be better for the country as a whole and might do more to provide the majority of American women with equal opportunities.

THREE: Hillary is the perfect choice for liberals with a twinge of white guilt, but not for anyone looking for real progress.

Schank thinks “that the millennial women who are supporting Bernie may simply not have gotten to a place in life where they’ve experienced this kind of chronic, internalized, institutional sexism.” She writes: “In order for someone to ignore you at a senior level, you need be old enough to have reached that level, and most millennials aren’t quite there yet.”

Maybe sexism began for Schank when she entered the boardroom, but for most American women, it doesn't. Girls feel the impact of it by the time they reach elementary school, where they’re already burdened by different standards of dress, decorum and performance than boys. Women feel it whether or not they ever enter the white-collar world. Women are at the greatest risk of poverty, and twice as likely as men to work a low-wage job. Even in those low-paying positions, women make less than men. Women of color make the least. Low-income women of color are more likely to be single parents than their male counterparts. Women are at greater risk of discrimination by insurance companies. Women are more likely to qualify for Medicaid and Medicare. Millennials have more student debt than any generation before, and millennial women owe the most – a reality most boomers and Gen-Xers didn’t have to contend with. Half of all states still don’t offer married women the same protections against rape as those they provide single women. Last year, a top adviser to Donald Trump went on the record saying that a woman cannot be raped by her husband. Schank fails to recognize that for many women, someone ignoring your job seniority might not be the most pressing feminist issue at hand. These women vote for Bernie because they’re worried about the likelihood of their kids going to college debt-free or dying in another conflict in the Middle East or at the hands of a police patrolman. These women sense that the status quo disproportionately disadvantages them.

Hillary’s got a shaky record when it comes to righting those disadvantages. As Elizabeth Warren reminds us, when Hillary was the president's wife, she convinced Bill to veto bankruptcy legislation that would have disproportionately harmed millions of women trying to collect child support. One year and $140,000 in campaign contributions later, Senator Hillary voted for the same legislation she’d convinced Bill to veto. Bernie voted against the House’s version of that 2001 bill, and he voted against it again when it came up in 2005. Hillary was absent from the vote that year.

In 2008, she was the only Democratic primary candidate (out of six) who opposed retroactively adjusting the sentences of addicts who had been disadvantaged by the 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack cocaine possession and powder cocaine possession. Powder sentencing primarily affects white Americans. Crack sentencing primarily affects black Americans, and it disproportionately locks up black women, sending their children into foster care.

That is what “chronic, internalized, institutional sexism” (and structural racism) looks like.

Eight years later, both Democratic candidates do support retroactive reform for sentencing disparities, but Bernie is still way ahead of Hillary on anti-racist criminal justice reform: He also advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana possession. “We must recognize that blacks are four times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana possession, even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana,” Bernie’s campaign wrote.

He told Hillary “I’m talking!” when she interrupted him during the Flint debate and sent women reeling the Internet over, proclaiming just how “pissed” they were to hear Bernie “shush” Hillary. The women of the Internet are silent when Hillary shuts down black women. When Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams confronted Hillary about her 1996 “superpredator” comment, Hillary snapped, “Maybe you can listen to what I say,” then turned her back as a Secret Service agent slid his arm around the young black woman’s waist and escorted her from the private event. When it was all over, Hillary faced the room and suggested they get “back to the issues” that were actually important to the room of donors: women like Hillary Clinton, not women like Ashley Williams. When another woman of color confronted Hillary over her 1996 comment that black men needed to be brought “to heel,” Hillary again reverted to condescension. “Why don’t you go run for something then?” she said.

When white feminists endorse a woman with a record of impoverishing and imprisoning black America as though she is the only pro-woman candidate, where do they leave women of color? Who are black women betraying if they vote for Hillary? This is thoughtless (and yes, white) feminism, and it disregards whole swaths of American women.

To talk about gender while avoiding its intersections is to graze dirty topics just enough to soothe a guilty conscience without actually getting your hands dirty. Like Barack, Hillary is someone white Democrats can vote for and feel good about themselves. They felt good for electing a black man, and now they can feel good for voting for a woman, knowing that if she’s elected, they won't experience a modicum of change or disruption to the status quo that privileges them.

FOUR: Hillary isn’t more likely to beat the Republicans

The women who support Hillary can go on for days about how she is held to different standards than male candidates: She can’t be too angry or too soft; she could never have unkempt hair; she has to endure “tiny flecks of condescension” from town hall participants.

It’s true that all those double standards (and more) exist for Hillary, but to argue that those double standards have been the only problems with her candidacy is as evasive as a feminism that ignores race or class. Hillary struggled to secure an obvious lead because she doesn’t have a convincing platform. Other than being supposedly more electable than Bernie, she wavers somewhere between advocating for the death penalty and preaching “love and kindness.”

The fact is Hillary should have always been the hands-down front-runner. The entire Democratic leadership has endorsed her. The DNC will do anything for her (whether it’s ethical or not). She has way more money than Bernie. She started this race with immeasurable name recognition, while mainstream media ignored Bernie for months (and even last Tuesday, the Washington Post published 16 Bernie-negative posts in less than 16 hours). Four hundred sixty-seven of the unelected Democratic superdelegates have pledged to nominate her, compared to Bernie’s 26. She has all of this even though she’s a woman – and for that, we can thank the baby-boomer and Generation-X feminists.

But Bernie presents a real challenge because his platform speaks to women who didn’t grow up to be like Hillary. He speaks to millennial women who recognize that sexism cannot be dismantled unless we attack economic inequality and racism too. And he speaks to millennial women who recognize that we are one general election away from swearing in a commander in chief endorsed by the Klan. Without getting into how far Bernie just outdoes Hillary in categories from voting consistency and moral compass, to economic and military foresight (he predicted the financial collapse and the rise of ISIS), here is the rundown on electability after the most recent CNN matchup polls: “Sanders – who enjoys the most positive favorable rating of any presidential candidate in the field, according to the poll” beats Trump and Cruz "by wide margins: 57% to 40% against Cruz, 55% to 43% against Trump.” Hillary beats Trump by a narrower margin and is within 1 point of Cruz.

I’m a millennial woman (and mother) voting for Bernie because there are graver aggressions at hand than merely the brand of discrimination I have experienced firsthand. There are millions of American women who still feel the very overt effects of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and income inequality – effects that go far beyond condescension.

It sucks to be talked to like you’re stupid. I know. I’ve lived that. But it sucks more to be unable to support your children on the paycheck you earn. It sucks even more to have your family deported or threatened with execution. I haven’t lived through any of those circumstances.  But I will vote in solidarity with the women who have. When a woman runs who can speak to more American women, she too will have my vote.

By Egan Marie

Egan Marie is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker from Atlanta, Georgia. She's the creator of Cunabula, a storytelling project breaking down the shame and stigma surrounding menstruation. She's 24 with a two-month-old son. See her work at eganmarie.com.

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