Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright have some message testing to do before stepping out again for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The two Clinton supporters have drawn criticism from progressives across the political spectrum for comments they made this weekend that illustrated one of contemporary feminism’s deepest divides: the generation gap.
“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Albright said at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire on Saturday. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” On Friday, in an interview with Bill Maher, Steinem explained young women’s support of Bernie Sanders over Clinton by chalking it up to sex: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’ ” she said. “Women get more radical because they lose power as they age.” The Twitter response was swift and unamused.
Steinem and Albright should have learned from Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s example. The Democratic National Committee chairwoman angered many feminists in January with her response to a New York Times Magazine question about the varying levels of excitement for Clinton’s candidacy among women of different generations. “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,” Wasserman Schultz said. Young women responded with their personal stories of reproductive justice activism, using the #DearDebbie hashtag.
These unfortunate statements about young women and the backlashes they triggered reveal a common thread between ageism and sexism, which intersect in ways specific to progressive movements. Some older women are convinced that younger women take for granted the struggles that preceded them and aren’t yet wise enough to lead the movement; some younger women believe that their forebears are out of touch and old-fashioned, hampered by the racism, heterocentrism, and class divides of feminisms past. Both of these outlooks contain elements of truth. But the damaging stereotypes that plague women the world over—aging women are bitter, joyless nags who’ve worn out their welcome, while young women are capricious, boy-crazy navel gazers—can tint feminist politics, too.
On Sunday, Steinem issued an apology for her remarks in a Facebook post:
In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what's been misinterpreted as implying young women aren't serious in their politics. What I had just said on the same show was the opposite: young women are active, mad as hell about what's happening to them, graduating in debt, but averaging a million dollars less over their lifetimes to pay it back. Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.
But Steinem made the same argument—that women get more radical as they age because they lose power as they age, while men grow more conservative because age brings them more power—to explain Barack Obama’s successful candidacy in 2008. “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,” Steinem wrote in a 2008 op-ed.
What worries me is that one of our greatest feminist leaders believes that only a vote for a woman can be a vote against patriarchal systems of oppression. In today’s world, a vote for a woman, especially a vote for Clinton, is not necessarily the most radical vote a woman could cast. All feminisms are not created equal. Even more importantly, gender issues are in conversation with all the other issues a presidential candidate must address. Setting aside whether and how Sanders could ever achieve the political revolution he promises, his emphasis on alleviating economic inequality and upsetting the current balance of power may speak to women who are paid less, promoted less, and taken less seriously than their male counterparts. Steinem and Albright are promoting a simplified, single-issue brand of feminism that rests on gendered essentialism and, in Steinem’s case, heterosexual motives, leaving no room for the complex, diverse hierarchies of concerns in women’s actual lives.
They might have been trying to shame women who support Sanders, but they ended up insulting Clinton’s fans, too. Steinem and Albright fell victim to the same demeaning logic that the most misogynist pro-Sanders trolls have endorsed, resting on the theory that women vote with their vaginas. Yes, women can perpetuate sexism—internalized misogyny is real, and it’s one of the reasons why an ornery pro-gun socialist has emerged as a credible contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it’s not the explanation behind every young woman who’s ended up in the Sanders camp. Clinton’s gender is a perfectly legitimate reason to support her. That doesn’t mean it automatically outweighs the rest of her platform.
For better and for worse, battles over today’s feminism are fought on the Internet, where an echo chamber of gaffes and takedowns and call-outs can drown out nuanced discourse, and a heedless remark can survive for eternity. “I’m so bored of women’s imperfect feminism used as a stick to beat them with. Impossible standard men never held to,” Sophie Wilkinson tweeted on Sunday of the backlash against Steinem. “There is no room for error anymore. And that’s a shame because we all fuck up,” Roxane Gay responded. But social media has also brought marginalized voices to the forefront of mainstream feminism, making it clear that the movement is due for a serious shake-up. If women like Wasserman Schultz, Steinem, and Albright aren’t careful, the Democratic Party risks losing the confidence and support of young women who are rightly concerned that their priorities and contributions are going unnoticed. Some of today’s most radical, compelling feminist perspectives are coming from young women, and they don’t respond well to being scolded to fall in line.
In Steinem’s 2008 op-ed, she argued against the common media narrative that explained Obama’s victory over Clinton. “What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t,” Steinem wrote. This is a piece of wise analysis that Steinem and Albright should revisit. Young feminists already have.