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The Bernie Debate: Would Sanders Advance Feminism and Racial Justice Better Than Clinton?

Feminists debate symbolism, socialism and racial politics in the presidential race

BY Kathleen Geier

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People are ready for a more left-wing message; Obama got elected on a whole lot of young people who were ready for genuine progressivism instead of compromise.

The 2016 presidential race is already upon us. As in 2008, Hillary Clinton is poised to become the first woman in American history to be nominated for president by a major political party. Once again, a debate has emerged: just how important to feminists is Hillary’s potential nomination, and presidency?

Thus far, the media has tended to shoehorn feminist debates into a shopworn narrative of intergenerational conflict, pitting “second wave” Hillary supporters against younger feminists who supposedly reject Clinton’s feminism as too old school. But contrary to these media accounts, polls indicate that Hillary’s support is notably higher among young women than among their older counterparts.

Moreover, the media’s schematic generational framing obscures many of the deeper, more far-reaching questions that feminists are grappling with. Would a woman president, even a feminist-identified woman like Hillary, necessarily improve women’s lot as a class? Will the candidates speak to the growing Black Lives Matter movement? And what about feminists on the Left, who are enthusiastic about the economic policies of socialist candidate Bernie Sanders but worry that he might not also prioritize gender and racial justice issues?

To discuss these concerns, In These Times  brought together three of our favorite feminists: Sady Doyle, an In These Times staff writer and founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown; Liza Featherstone, a journalism professor and author of Selling Women Short: Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Walmart; and Andrea Plaid, contributing editor at the Feminist Wire.

Who are you supporting for president?

LIZA: Bernie Sanders. It’s very exciting that a socialist is running and addressing economic inequality, which is rarely taken seriously in the U.S. political conversation.

SADY: Hillary Clinton. She has served for a long time and proven her right to be there. I’m 33, and as someone who’s grown up with Hillary and seen her uphill battle toward being anything other than a punch line, I have an emotional investment in her.

ANDREA: Neither of these candidates excites me. I have “Clinton fatigue”—the sheer tiredness of both Clintons taking up space in the political landscape. And I’m even more tired of the “everything is about class” rhetoric that is Sanders’s stump speech. That notion lacks as much intersectionality as mainstream, mostly white feminists saying it’s all about gender.

Would a female president be merely a symbolic victory for feminism?​ 

LIZA: Symbolic politics are important. It’s positive for little girls to see that the head of the country is a woman. However, we’ve seen many countries elect conservative and neoliberal women who didn’t materially improve women’s lives. There is a woman running and there is a socialist running, and sadly, they’re not the same person.

SADY: I would resist the idea that Hillary is a “conservative” woman, or a purely symbolic figure; nobody is saying that it's a feminist choice to elect Carly Fiorina. Most feminists are smart enough to tell the difference between electing a qualified candidate who happens to be female and “electing a woman.” That said, I do think there’s a resistance to having a woman in the highest office in the land. Hillary becomes this “beloved” figure when she’s working for someone else, yet attracts enormous animosity when she runs for this particular office. I worry that, whether they’re saying it or not, some people don’t want to elect a woman.

Which feminist issues should be priorities for the next president?

SADY: Economic injustice, whether that’s fair wages or whether that’s the burden of poverty on single mothers working outside the home. It’s one of the reasons I’m excited about Sanders as well as Clinton.

LIZA: I completely agree. The most important issue is wages, both equal pay and in the larger sense of better jobs. Women are heavily burdened by these economic problems.

ANDREA: For me, these are central priorities, but I also think that racial justice issues—welfare reform, access to comprehensive reproductive-health education and services, police brutality, mass incarceration, deportation, housing—need to be priorities, too. Yeah, my feminism is merrily messy like that.

LIZA: Without the ability to control our bodies women are less than second class citizens. However, I don’t think that the mainstream feminist strategy of using this issue to scare women into supporting otherwise terrible Democrats has worked. We’ve been seeing this for years and access to abortion just keeps declining, and poll numbers on support for abortion rights aren’t very heartening, either. So we clearly need a more grass roots strategy.

What are your biggest criticisms of Hillary and Bernie?

ANDREA: I don’t think either gets intersectional politics. They talk about their bona fides: Hillary about her initiatives regarding women, Bernie about his economic justice accolades and marching with King. But now we’re in the climate of Black Lives Matter. Sandra Bland, Ralkina Jones, Raynetta Turner and Joyce Curnell have died in police custody under questionable circumstances, as have non-Black women of color like Sandra Lee Circle Bear, a Lakota woman. Their names need to said, and the nexus of issues that led to their deaths need to be addressed and ultimately, eliminated. 

LIZA: It’s baffling and dispiriting that Bernie is not more outspoken on racial injustice. I don’t think he doesn’t care. But he’s a stubborn old white man who doesn’t like to be criticized. With Hillary, my biggest criticism is her entire record: She has not only represented the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but often pushed that mainstream to the Right.

SADY: I do worry about that with Hillary. That’s been my criticism of everybody who’s won the Democratic nomination. With Bernie Sanders, my criticism (if you can call it that) is that he has less experience on the world stage. Granted, very few candidates have the kind of high-level experience Clinton does – very few people have been a Senator and a Secretary of State and a highly visible part of two Presidential administrations – and the fact that she has that experience means there's more of a record for us to parse and question. I also worry about whether he’s going to be graceful in dealing with the natural desire of people on the Left to test him on issues around race and gender.

LIZA: Years ago I went to a Bernie Sanders house party with my baby, and instead of trying to kiss the baby, like a politician, he just did what any old white man does, which is talk to you and ignore the baby.

Right now Bernie is trailing Hillary among women and voters of color. Why do you think this is?

LIZA: Partly, because it’s somewhat new to be running a social democratic platform that emphasizes economic inequality. We don’t even expect a candidate to be talking about these things so we don’t look for it. Women and people of color are used to the democrats being the only alternative to the republicans, so Hillary has a lot of name recognition. But the issues that sanders is talking about are important to these voters, especially African Americans. i do think his platform has the potential to catch on.

ANDREA: I disagree. This isn’t about white women and people of color—and remember that women of color fall into both categories—not understanding economic inequality. In fact, people of color can probably school quite a few white progressives on these matters. 

LIZA: I didn’t mean to suggest that these voters don’t understand economic inequality issues. Every poll shows we do.

ANDREA: Bernie’s problem is he sounds too much like white progressives and socialists who oversimplify our issues as “all about class.” 

LIZA: I don’t think he exactly believes that. Equal pay for women is a separate issue in his platform, and he has started to say more about racial justice. He obviously knows that these are important issues in themselves. But yes, he often seems to change the subject to economics as if they are more fundamental and he shouldn’t do that, because, of course, it’s not true.

ANDREA: And that doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily running to Hillary, either—again, quite a few of us remember that she, her husband, and her mostly white female supporters—including feminists—stood against people of color and our issues.

On the campaign trail, Hillary sounds like an economic populist, but she supported policies like NAFTA, as well as “reforms” to welfare and bankruptcy. Which Hillary should we believe?

LIZA: We should believe her record, which is neoliberal. Her campaign rhetoric is pretty much a response to market research and most likely, it ends there.

ANDREA: I agree with Liza on this.

SADY: People do learn over the course of 20 years, and that Hillary has learned from people’s concerns about economic inequality and the middle class disappearing. But there is the “liar” narrative about Hillary: Due to entrenched misogyny, the media views her with suspicion—this shadowy, evil woman behind the scenes. We are more inclined to distrust her than another candidate who has moved left.

Do you worry that Bernie is too far left for the voters? That nominating him could cost the Democrats the presidency?

LIZA: Not at all. He’s drawing huge crowds in places like Iowa that are certainly not Berkeley. But I don’t think that the Democratic establishment will actually let him be nominated.

SADY: People are ready for a more left-wing message; Obama got elected on a whole lot of young people who were ready for genuine progressivism instead of compromise. I do worry that Sanders vs. Clinton will become ugly. And we’re going to get to the finish line unable to get behind the nominee, and then I am going to wake up one day and Ted Cruz will be president.

Whatever our differences, we really cannot stand to have a Republican president again.

ANDREA: On that I agree.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and researcher who has written for The Baffler, The Nation and The Washington Monthly.

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