Within the first round of questions in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders got into the weeds of gender politics. Moderator Judy Woodruff pressed Clinton on the gender breakdown of her base, noting that 55 percent of female voters backed Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. “What are women missing about you?” Woodruff asked.
Rather than outline the entrenched sexist narratives she's up against or point out any of the myriad reasons why New Hampshire voters might support Sanders over her, Clinton stepped delicately around the question. “I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me,” Clinton said. “I have no argument with anyone making up her mind about who to support. I just hope that by the end of this campaign there will be a lot more supporting me.”
Woodruff asked Clinton to agree or disagree with the controversial remarks made by her fellow former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” seeming to chide young women who are backing Sanders. Clinton was well-prepared for this one and took it in stride with a smile. “I think she's been saying that for as long as I've known her, which is about 25 years,” she said. “It doesn't change my view that we need to empower everyone, women and men to make the best decisions in their minds that they can make.”
Clinton was smart enough to avoid the kind of kerfuffle that rose around Albright and Gloria Steinem’s remarks from last weekend, avoiding any pleas centered on gender. “I am not asking people to support me because I'm a woman. I am asking people to support me because I think I am the most qualified, experienced, and ready person to be the president and the commander in chief,” she said. But she did highlight the already-historic nature of her campaign in a moment of solidarity with the two female moderators: “Somebody told me earlier today we've had like 200 presidential primary debates, and this is the first time there have been a majority of women on the stage. So we'll take our progress wherever we can find it.”
In response, Sanders did what he could to talk up his women-related accomplishments: winning the majority of women’s votes in his Vermont elections, maintaining a “lifetime 100 percent pro-choice voting record,” and supporting current congressional legislation that would address the gender wage gap. Clinton touted her endorsements from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America (organizations Sanders previously pooh-poohed as “establishment”) and drew a line between her leadership on women’s issues, particularly reproductive justice, and his allyship:
I appreciate greatly Senator Sanders' voting record. … I have been a leader on these issues. I have gone time and time again to take on the vested interests who would [make] women's health care decisions the province of the government instead of women ourselves. ... We need a leader on women's issues. Somebody who, yes, votes right but much more than that, leads the efforts to protect the hard-fought gains that women have made that, make no mistake about it, are under tremendous attack, not just by the Republican presidential candidates but by a whole national effort to try to set back women's rights.
One of the best, bluntest questions of this debate cycle came from moderator Gwen Ifill, who brought up an issue that’s fun to imagine floating around Sanders’ head at night. “Senator,” Ifill asked, “do you worry at all that you will be the instrument of thwarting history, as Senator Clinton keeps claiming that she may be the first woman president?”
No, he doesn’t. “I think from an historical point of view,” Sanders said, “somebody with my background, somebody with my views, somebody who has spent his entire life taking on the big money interests—I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment as well.”