Bernie Sanders isn’t a woman, but is he a better feminist than Hillary Clinton?

RTX KPE. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

Pundits in the U.S. see Hillary Clinton in deep trouble with women voters after her spectacular loss to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.

While Clinton’s three percent lead among women voters in Iowa helped give her a whisper-thin win in the nation’s first caucus, her 11 percent deficit among women voters in New Hampshire helped Bernie Sanders to a landslide victory in the nation’s first primary. Clearly, the votes of women are playing a pivotal role this primary season.

Add to that the recent controversies over Clinton supporters Madeleine Albright, who claimed “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support women,” and Gloria Steinem, who suggested young women were supporting Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie,” and the Clinton campaign is less sure than ever that it can win the woman’s vote – even among feminists.

In last night’s debate, Clinton acknowledged this, saying “I have spent my entire adult life making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices – even if that choice is not to vote for me."

As a woman, a Democrat and a feminist, Clinton has been counting on women’s votes to help sweep her into the Oval Office because women comprise 52 percent of the national electorate, more woman identify as Democrats than Republicans and more women than men are assumed to be feminists.

So why aren’t Democratic women and feminists more eager to vote for the country’s first female president?

Yes, Clinton’s and Sanders' support among women voters tends to divide along age lines. But what also accounts for this split is how voters respond to and formulate their positions in relation to the three “I’s”: Identity, Ideology and Issues.

1. Identity

Identity refers to the unique characteristics voters believe distinguish their candidate from the opposition.

“Woman” is often understood as an identity category, as is “feminist”. Those voters who believe that – above all else – what the United States needs now is a woman president prefer Clinton. Those voters who identify as feminists could choose either Clinton or Sanders, as both candidates have declared themselves to be feminists.

Which candidate feminist voters will select depends on where they stand on ideology and issues.

2. Ideology

Ideology refers to the system of ideas and ideals that motivate social and political action.

Feminism itself is an ideology. Yet there are many ideological strands of feminism. In this election, Clinton represents a liberal corporate feminism, while Sanders represents a democratic socialist feminism.

Feminists who believe that equality of opportunity for women should be pursued within the existing political and economic system favor Clinton’s feminism. Feminists who believe that women’s equality requires a democratic revolution against political and corporate power that drives economic inequality favor Sanders’ feminism.

Feminist ideologies differ not only by ideological strand but also by ideological stretch. All feminist ideologies consider how gender and sexuality privilege some people and disadvantage others, but not all feminist ideologies stretch as far as others. Some look only at how gender and sexuality affect women and/or heterosexuals, while others stretch the categories of gender and sexuality to include men, homosexuals and trans people.

3. Issues

Both Clinton and Sanders stretch their respective brands of feminism, but Sanders claims to have been stretching his feminism for far longer than has Clinton. This is evident in how each candidate presents their record on the issue of LGBT rights and marriage equality.

As secretary of state, Clinton famously declared “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights” in her 2011 Human Rights Day speech. While a long-time supporter of partnership benefits and civil unions for same-sex couples, Clinton said in 2000 had she been a senator in 1996, she would have voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits and marriage equality to same-sex couples. In 2013, Clinton announced her position had evolved in support of marriage equality.

Sanders, on the other hand, voted against DOMA in 1996. Whether Sanders' opposition to DOMA was because he is a strong states' rights advocate or a strong LGBT advocate is debated. What is not debated is that when Sanders (like Clinton) urged the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn DOMA in 2013, he did so as one of the few consistent legislative opponents of this law.

Identity, ideology and issues combine differently for different voters – individually, as demographic groups and in relation to specific types of contests like caucuses and primaries versus national elections.

In Iowa, their combination helped Sanders win the youth vote, even among women and feminists. In New Hampshire, their combination gave Sanders 69 percent of women’s votes from the under 45 age group. For these Sanders voters, the kind of feminist Sanders is was more important than Clinton’s gender. Ideology and issues prevailed over the identity category of woman.

Whether Clinton can stretch her feminism to capture women and feminists supporting Sanders matters not just in the current contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, her ability to appeal to women and feminists will matter in the general election as well. It will be among the factors that determine whether the Democrats continue to win the national women’s vote or concede more of that vote to the Republicans, whether because women and feminists are not motivated enough to vote at all or because they dislike Clinton so much that they would vote for the Republican candidate before they would vote for her. In a tight race, that could be enough to decide the presidency.