Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances are intricately bound up with the political status of middle-aged women. As she scraped the narrowest of victories in Iowa and lost heavily in New Hampshire, commentators began focusing on age-based divisions among female voters. Clinton, it seemed, had shown signs of losing badly among younger white women.
Since then, Clinton’s decisive victory in Nevada, her barnstorming win in South Carolina and her performance on Super Tuesday demonstrate that the earlier caucuses in overwhelmingly rural and white states might not be indicative of the overall American electorate.
But the supposed age-based gender gap still warrants attention. If younger women appear overwhelmingly opposed to an older woman’s candidacy, it pays to figure out why – and what implications that would have for Clinton’s chances of reaching the White House.
Many young Democratic voters feel disadvantaged and excluded for reasons that have little to do with gender. Higher education leaves them with huge debts, while the middle class (a very elastic term in the US) faces unstable employment prospects and crushing medical costs. Given the number of issues they face that have nothing to do with being female, some younger women have chafed at older feminists’ apparent insistence that they should vote for Clinton simply because she’s a woman.
When Madeleine Albright, a Clinton supporter and the first female Secretary of State, said recently at a Clinton rally that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, a phrase she’s used frequently over the years, many younger women supporting Bernie Sanders felt insulted, forcing Albright to clarify what she meant. Second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem caused an even bigger stir by suggesting young women supported Sanders, himself a much older man, because “the boys are with Bernie”.
Beyond the obvious sense of umbrage at being told how to vote, there are lots of reasons these women might not listen to second wavers such as Steinem and Albright. Are these young women really less aware of the battles their mothers fought for women’s rights? Or do they want a woman in the White House – just not this woman?
Today’s young women construct their identity across a number of categories, and they don’t necessarily prioritise gender over race, class or sexuality. So whereas Clinton is generally seen as something of a pragmatic moderate on a range of issues, they are attracted by Sanders’ self-proclaimed radicalism, and his proposals for a much higher minimum wage and free college tuition paid for by a tax on Wall Street.
The “radicalism” of electing a female president, especially a politically moderate one, just doesn’t seem to set their hearts ablaze.
In her own right
If young women were to cost her the nomination or the presidency, that would set a strange cap on Clinton’s career, which has almost perfectly mirrored women’s shifting place in the American polity. She has moved from limited influence to activism to wielding political power in her own right: From student activist to governor’s and president’s wife, she went on to be elected to the Senate and appointed secretary of state, one of the government’s most powerful and visible offices. Yet her electability as president is in doubt because the nation still marginalises older women.
American women’s political activism is not new, nor does it date solely to the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. As the franchise broadened to include all white men in the early 19th century, women, even the affluent, acutely felt their marginalised position. Their efforts to reform society through campaigns for temperance, abolitionism, and social activism carried less weight because they could not make their displeasure felt at the ballot box.
Even after the 19th Amendment enfranchised women in 1920, those from racial minorities encountered insurmountable obstacles when they tried to vote, especially in the South and Southwest. And suffrage alone did not mean women’s voices were heard. While a few older women mounted successful campaigns for public office, they succeeded primarily at the local level, winning places on school boards and city councils and in state legislatures. Only a handful broke into national politics.
One such pioneer was Frances Perkins, who had a long history as a reformer. Franklin D. Roosevelt (at the behest of his wife, Eleanor) appointed her as the first female cabinet member in 1933. A few women managed to enter the House of Representatives in their own right during the first half of the 20th century, yet not until Nancy Kassebaum was elected as senator from Kansas in 1978 did a woman enter the Senate without having first filled her husband’s seat when he died.
As women fight their way from the political margins to the centre, Clinton’s appeal to middle-aged and older voters should be seen as a strength, not the liability that journalists and television commentators seem to think it is. After all, older people, especially women, vote in greater numbers than younger people do. And as the Super Tuesday results show, the multi-racial electorate – especially in the South and Southwest – warmly supports Hillary Rodham Clinton. And that bodes well for her chances in November.