Back in February, my blood boiled as I read that two women whom I greatly admire—who, like all humans, are imperfect—told the world that young women didn’t know how to vote with their brains. First-wave feminist activist Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, speaking in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (also former Secretary of State), decided those young female-identifying supporters of Bernie Sanders are just following the trend among young men and are, of course, going to hell as a result.
This is a bit of an oversimplification; here are the words that Albright actually spoke:
“We [women] can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Albright said. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Steinem, I think, cut even deeper in an interview with Bill Maher:
“[Women are] going to get more activist as they get older,” she said. “And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”
Albright has used this phrase in various forms in the past, and perhaps did not realize the weight it would have in the context that she said it. That being said, I find it inexcusable to think that my supporting a political candidate should depend not on my politics, but solely upon some shared identity that does not have to be at all related to a political platform (see: Carly Fiorina, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and far too many others).
There’s really no way that you can slice Steinem’s argument to make it acceptable. It directly perpetuates the idea that young female voters can’t have any ideas of their own, one that I had thought Steinem dedicated her life to refuting.
These two comments were a very public representation of an idea that I think is actually pretty common, that there’s no way my decision to vote for a particular candidate can be my own, that it must have been influenced by some external factor to which I’ve fallen prey.
At least out of the people I know on campus, the overwhelming majority are Sanders supporters, and at least half of them are women. How terribly insulting is it, then, to reduce the complex decision-making process that my intelligent and analytical classmates go through to one that entails merely looking up, seeing where the boys are, and then heading there themselves? That’s really no different from saying that anyone will support him simply because a bird landed on his podium during a campaign rally.
And how insulting is to Hillary supporters who are now being accused of just looking up, saying “A woman is running for president and I’m a woman so that means that I have to vote for her,” that their choice has, too, been reduced to one that has been made off of no actual knowledge?
There’s probably a more eloquent way of putting this, but it really just sucks that we are still debating whether or not women are capable of making an independent decision to vote. Headlines dominate the op-ed sections of newspapers and online publications with articles by women defending their political decisions.
“I’m a woman and I will vote for the best feminist for president: Bernie Sanders,” reads one Guardian headline.
Susan Sarandon, an actress, activist, and prominent Sanders supporter, proclaimed earlier this year that she does not, in fact, vote with her vagina. This statement is at once empowering and disheartening, in that she’d even have to defend her decision to vote for a male candidate when a woman is also a contender in her preferred party’s race.
Likewise, even critiquing the often sexist media portrayal of Hillary (this is a personal belief, and I feel that I should also add here that I am a Clinton supporter), generally leads to a dead-end argument where, because I am overly sensitive to sexism, I read too far into the literature and thereby render what could have been a thoughtful response irrelevant before I even had a chance to make it.
Everybody engages with identity politics differently, and it is unfair that any single identity should automatically ascribe to an individual a certain political position. It very well may, but it also very well may not. Personally, I share a piece of each Democratic candidate’s identities (Jewish and female-identifying), and yet I still managed to come to a decision based primarily on factors that have absolutely nothing to do with them. In the area of women’s rights, I am confident that either Sanders or Clinton—whose positions on the subject are rather similar—will do right by us.
There’s no winning—for anyone—in this type of argument, and it should be set aside. It’s exhausting, really, to have to constantly prove that we can hold distinct personal values and synthesize them with complex policy positions in order to decide to support a particular candidate. I thought that it went without saying, but clearly it doesn’t: Female voters think and make own choices about which candidates to back and are under absolutely no obligation to defend the idea that gender played in their decision-making processes.
I understand that the ways in which I am privileged do not fundamentally restrict my access to voting in any way, and I’d like to acknowledge that the people who really cannot win in the entire American political process are not those in my demographic. However, I think that at the same time we can still strive for a better representation of female voters at levels as high as in the national media and as low as in conversations with our families and friends. Unfortunately, as female voters, particularly young ones, our motives will remain under question by most who inquire.
Schiff is a member of the class of 2018.