When Identity Politics Clash with Intersectionality – The Democratic Primary and the “Women’s Vote”

When Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, her emotional concession speech highlighted something she had ignored for most of her campaign: that she was a woman running for president. She professed her gratitude to the American people for allowing her to come so far, and expressed hope that the fight for a female commander-in-chief wasn’t over. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time,” she said in her concession, “Thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Eight years later, it seems as though this hope is even closer to becoming a reality. Hillary is once again battling for her party’s nomination, and this time around, she’s centered much of her platform on her gender. Constantly citing her experience as a grandmother, and surrounding herself with a group of female senators she calls “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits,” Mrs. Clinton has embraced her gender wholeheartedly, in stark contrast with her previous campaign. She has focused much of her platform around so-called “women’s issues,” emphasizing the historical potential of her victory, and once again calling to break the last glass ceiling. Employing this strategy, when she first announced her candidacy, it was assumed that the voting bloc of female Democrats would be in the bag. However, the number of supporters she has in this category is quickly dwindling, most significantly in young women.

This stark lack of backing from the very group Clinton seems intent on championing has been highlighted dramatically in the first two Democratic primary contests. In Iowa, she scraped by, gaining 53 percent of the female vote, and lost it in New Hampshire, receiving 44 percent of the overall women’s vote and only 35 percent of those under 45. These statistics seem to highlight a peculiar paradox: the more Hillary tries to underscore her status as a woman, the fewer women appear to support her.

This unlikely problem has revealed a sharp dichotomy between old and young feminists in terms of their ideals, policy preferences, and candidate choices. Those over the age of 45 who grew up in the second-wave feminism of the ’60s and ’70s, staunchly support Hillary. They view her possible nomination as the ultimate victory for the feminist movement, epitomizing a century-long struggle for equal opportunities in all fields.

The older generation has a somewhat dated view of feminism itself. The battles that they associate with the cause are more aligned with the issues that they faced in their youth, such as breaking away from the cult of domesticity, supporting equal rights for women in the workplace, and reaching the same societal status as men. For them, Hillary’s platform is the one most aligned with these goals. As a Vox journalist Kay Steiger put it, “For second wave feminists, Hillary Clinton is the best shot at defending Roe v. Wade, achieving a more liberal balance on the Supreme Court, and finally advancing feminist causes like paid family leave.”

When she first announced her candidacy, the assumption was that the voting block of female democrats would be in the bag. However, the number of supporters she has in this category is quickly dwindling, most significantly in young women.

In opposition to these older women are the next generation; one that is composed of young people re-defining what it means to be a feminist. This new wave is more concerned with “intersectionality,” or the idea that all of the identities one identifies with — such as gender, class and race — are too intertwined for one to take precedent over another. For them, Hillary’s opponent Bernie Sanders presents a liberal platform much more in line with their goals and ideals.

College campuses around the country, a steady hotbed of feminism, are “feeling the Bern,” professing their support for a candidate who champions matters that they feel affect them more directly. According to Quartz magazine, the type of young women who choose Sanders do so because of his appeal to a wide variety of issues that have recently fallen under the umbrella of “feminist.” No longer are women’s rights limited to simply gender equality. They now include finance reform, criminal and racial justice, education and economic equality, to name a few. Ultimately, Bernie’s platform prioritizes many more of these problems than Hillary’s does, hence the appeal.

These “third-wave feminists” do not believe in voting for Clinton simply because she is a woman. In fact, many view this notion as anti-feminist in itself. While most concede that they would like to see a female president in their lifetime, there is a significant group who believe that it shouldn’t be this female. Jazmin Vargas, a senior at Barnard, voiced the opinion of many when she stated, “We’re at the point where we don’t want to select any woman, we want to select the right candidate for women’s rights. It’s not about symbolic representation anymore. It’s about selecting substantive representation.”

In an ironic twist, some of Clinton’s staunchest supporters have also hurt her campaign the most. In remarks that have quickly become infamous, Madeline Albright, the first female Secretary of State and a glass-ceiling breaker in her own right, stated that there is “a special place in hell” for women who don’t support each other. Following less than a week later, Gloria Steinem implied that young females are voting for Bernie because “that’s where the boys are.” While both these women subsequently apologized for their comments, they could possibly do irreparable damage to Hillary’s campaign.

Many of Hillary’s older supporters have tried to fight this damage by focusing on the role she and other second-wave feminists played fighting for the conditions that allowed third wave feminism to arrive. As Gail Ellis, 68, put it, “If it wasn’t for people like Hillary and Gloria Steinem — women in the feminist movement — they wouldn’t have the kind of life they have now.” Debbie Wasserman Shultz, chair of the DNC, echoed this viewpoint, a bit more bluntly. “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.” These women have followed Hillary’s entire career as a politician, from the White House to the Senate to the campaign trail. To them, she represents the triumph of a movement that goes back to The Feminine Mystique and the Equal Pay Act, and who has long championed and embodied the traditional Feminist.

While these are valid points and certainly speak to many of Clinton’s virtues, Hillary will not be able to rely on past fights and victories to gain the support of a new generation. As Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008, running for president is about looking forward, not backward. Young people have recognized this, and unless Hillary does as well, she will be left in the dust of the fast-moving, future-thinking intersectional group of voters who are quickly hopping onto the Bernie bandwagon.