Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What do young women want from Bernie Sanders?

By Jeremy Adam Smith


I've been watching the cross-generational dialogue here on the Berkeley Blog between Ph.D. candidate Peggy O'Donnell and professor emerita Robin Lakoff, which started with Lakoff's interesting observation about how Hillary Clinton is being "hyperinterpreted" and concluded with O'Donnell's defense of young women who vote for Bernie Sanders.

Meanwhile, over in my corner of UC Berkeley, I've been thinking and writing a lot about gender bias, power differences, and the election. My research led me to talk with Barbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She interviewed 109 “millennials” (people born in the 1980s and 90s) about how they experience being a man, woman, or transgendered. She found high levels of gender-related anxiety among young men, which didn't surprise me.

“Young men who step even a little bit outside of traditional masculinity still report a great deal of stigmatizing by peers, and sometimes even by parents,” Risman told me. “They tell very painful stories. I got very few painful stories about gender oppression from millennial women, at this point in their lives. Most of them talk about their parents letting them make their own choices.”

While this suggests that young women might be more open-minded and less constrained by the good woman vs. good leader dichotomy that Deborah Tannen describes in a recent Washington Post op-ed, their attitudes hclintonbernieave not translated into support for Clinton’s candidacy—precisely the opposite, as they’ve voted in large numbers for Sanders. At this writing, the more like Clinton they are (specifically, white and educated), the more likely they are to vote for Sanders.

Why? This is partially what O'Donnell and Lakoff are debating -- and a question that Risman is pondering as well. “At this point in millennials' lives, in this feminist-influenced you-go-girl world, young women understand gender to be a personal attribute, not a socially imposed identity,” writes Risman in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune. “Why would they support a woman for president because she shared their sex category?”

A byproduct of greater equality?

It could also simply be an unexpected byproduct of greater equality: for young women, more social power might mean less pressure to pick the woman—and thus greater range of choice. In other words, voting for Clinton’s opponent may feel like a powerful act for young women. As O'Donnell writes:

The greatest gift today’s young women have been given by the women who came before us is that of choice: we have the ability to choose what we will do with our lives, how we will present ourselves, and which issues we care about. To see young women exercising that power of choice should be a sign of hope for tomorrow, not an occasion for derision.

I've discussed the election with lots of Cal students. For many of them, the Iraq War and the Great Recession are their two generation-defining forces. Their concerns are actually pretty economic--shockingly economic: they're worried about student debt and their job prospects, and (to a lesser degree) about housing (this is the Bay Area, so everyone feels eaten alive by rent).

When I asked two young women if they felt compelled to vote for Clinton because she's a woman, they seemed viscerally repulsed by the notion. "That's just a snow job," said one. Meaning that, they felt like Clinton was using feminist solidarity as a way of manipulating them into supporting policies that were against their interest.

I've heard a lot from people of Clinton's generation (and even of mine, Generation X) that millennials just want "free" stuff. Here's one thing I try to remember: When I was a University of Florida undergraduate, when Bill Clinton first became president, I was paying $150 a month in rent (not a typo!) and less than $2,000 in tuition every academic year. I worked my way through the last two years of college, but the cost of living was low and my political concerns were mostly non-economic. Today, the median rent in Berkeley is $3,526 and undergraduate in-state tuition is $13,432. I'd be grateful, dear reader, if you took a personal moment to measure that distance. Is it any wonder millennials are feeling pressured -- or that some of them are "feeling the Bern"?

There's little question that the rise of Bernie Sanders is fueled by people who feel boiled alive by the cost of living. They're willing to entertain ideas that were unthinkable when I was in college: more state intervention in rental and housing markets, free tuition at public universities, single-payer health care, and more.

It's worth noting that Sanders also describes himself as a feminist -- and his positions and record on issues like reproductive rights and family leave are almost identical to Clinton's. Let's take a moment to let that sink in: We have a competitive national election in which a self-described feminist is running against a self-described socialist-feminist. That would not have happened in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected and I was an undergrad.

So what do relatively privileged young women want from Bernie Sanders? The uncomplicated answer, I think, is that they want his policies. I'm also hearing that they feel more solidarity with young men on economic issues than they might feel with older women who live in very different circumstances. Many young men and women seem to wonder if they'll ever be as financial secure as their parents. This doesn't describe everyone, of course; no generation is monolithic. In fact, many millennials grew up with financially insecure parents and, if they're voting at all, most of them seem to be voting an easier path to success. Sky-high rents and college tuition are obstacles on that path.

Either way, we should take it very seriously when a generation of Democratic voters go so overwhelmingly for one candidate who promises, so forcefully and consistently, to lend them a hand. Of course, young men and women are not the only ones who matter and they're not the only ones voting. Clinton will probably win the nomination, but I hope she gets the message that millennials are sending. It's the economy, stupid. Now more than ever.

Who started it doesn't matter

My own message to my fellow old people is that we should be curious, not fearful, of this shift. The times are a-changing, and fighting change is not exactly "progressive." I'd also like to put in a good word for empathy, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and compassion. While all primaries are contests that involve some heat and imbalance, I've never seen anything quite so polarized as Clinton vs. Sanders in 2016. I've seen smart, good people cherrypick evidence to support a pre-existing narrative and react very badly when you provide contrary information; I've seen thoughtful people denounced as sexist for raising legitimate questions and others attacked, with vicious language, for defending actions that I don't think would need defending if a male politician had taken them. I'm not prone to blaming "both sides," because there's always more than two, and more often than not, one of those sides really is making things worse for everyone. But in this case, actually, yes: There are two sides and both of them are to blame.

It doesn't matter who started it. The only question is, or should be: How are we going to make it better right now? It looks right now as though the Democratic nominee will face Donald Trump in the general election. I don't know about you, but I personally think he's going to be very bad for women, young and old. So, let's debate the issues and psychoanalyze each other and vote for the candidate we think will do the best job as president, as people do who live in something that resembles a democracy. But after a nominee has been picked, let's also be prepared to empathize, forgive, and reconcile, so that we can go strong into the general election.