Lela Spielberg is a lifelong advocate for gender equality. She has worked in the education and social services field as a teacher, policy analyst, and program designer at a local family foundation in Washington, DC. In this post, she describes how the dialogue about Bernie Sanders and his supporters illustrates some of the problems with a particular brand of American feminism.
Over the last month, as Bernie Sanders has gained popularity in the polls, the media and prominent political figures have ramped up their attacks against him. At first, these attacks were unsurprising to me: “he’s inexperienced;” “he’s too idealistic;” “he’ll never get anything done.” These statements are part of the typical chorus of attacks that Washington insiders and committed capitalists have used against progressive candidates since the beginning of time. I won’t spend my time debunking these myths, as there have been several articles, including ones on this blog, that have done so already. However, about a month ago, a new strand of attacks emerged that I have found more troubling – as a woman, as a millennial, and as an American. These attacks allege that Bernie and/or his supporters are anti-feminist. Not only are they untrue, but their language also demonstrates the deep sense of elitism and entitlement that pervades traditional American feminism.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I’m a Bernie supporter. I’ve identified as a socialist ever since I learned about the concept in my eighth-grade world history class, and I’ve admired Bernie’s activism since I moved to Washington over six years ago. Until Bernie jumped into the race, I had planned on casting a rather unenthusiastic vote for Hillary Clinton. While I believe Clinton to be smart and hard-working, her past support for bad trade deals, aggressive war, and welfare reform are not aligned with my values of fairness, peace, and economic equality. Bernie, on the other hand, has spent decades fighting for these values and has a record to prove it.
Moreover, all of these issues are at the heart of what I believe feminism to be—fighting for fairness for all women, regardless of their race, sexual identity, education level, and economic position. Consider, for example, that two thirds of workers who earn the minimum wage are women. While Clinton has voiced support for raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, only Sanders has embraced and aggressively campaigned for the $15 minimum wage that thousands of women throughout the United States are demanding. Or think about the young women and girls being rounded up and deported by the Obama Administration. Clinton defended these actions six months ago and still won’t commit to ending them. Sanders, on the other hand, has spoken out strongly against the deportation raids and in support of Central American children. To me, feminism is not just about abortion rights and breaking the glass ceiling; it’s also about making sure that all women have access to good, reliable prenatal care and early screenings for breast cancer under a Medicare for All health care system, which Bernie Sanders supports and Hillary Clinton does not. Feminism is about fighting for the empowerment of disadvantaged women both in the United States and around the world.
Yet powerful public figures, including two “feminist icons,” have called my feminism (as well as the seriousness of my convictions) into question by mocking my choice to support Bernie over Hillary. While they’ve since issued partial apologies for their most egregious comments – Gloria Steinem’s assertion that young women only support Bernie because “the boys are with Bernie” and Madeleine Albright’s statement that “there is a special place in hell for women who won’t help other women” by voting for Hillary Clinton – the fact that they made them at all, and their failure to really own them, propagates an American feminism that isn’t about supporting all women, but is about supporting wealthy, powerful, white women. So do comments by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who said in an interview with the New York Times in January that she sees “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”
The idea that young women are complacent and don’t have a sense of history is wrong. I appreciate the strides women have made, in politics and in boardrooms across the country. These accomplishments are wonderful, and they should be celebrated and continued. However, in crowing about these accomplishments without acknowledging that most of them only benefit middle- and upper-class white women, it is Steinem, Albright, and Wasserman Schultz who forget the lessons of history. Even with Roe v. Wade, poor and working-class women still lack access to safe, affordable abortions and family planning choices that their wealthier female counterparts have. This deep inequality that has only grown in recent generations is one of the reasons I am voting for Bernie Sanders.
As it turns out, my peers feel similarly – Sanders leads Hillary when it comes to female voters under 45, and he beat Hillary by 11 percentage points among all women in the New Hampshire primary. Yet many media voices continue to paint Bernie supporters as mostly male by using the term “Berniebro.” Coined in an article in the Atlantic, the Berniebro label originally characterized Bernie supporters as “white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, ‘upper middle-class’); and aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.”
Numerous other commentators, including Paul Krugman, have now picked up on this label. In their estimation, the Berniebro is not only a privileged white man, but a sexist, online harasser, too. In reality, however, the term Berniebro is sexist. When it isn’t accusing women of being “bros,” it’s ignoring the voices of women (and, for that matter, the people of color and working-class people) who support Bernie.
Let me be clear: I am not defending anyone, Bernie supporter or otherwise, who makes sexist, nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton. Nor am I denying that Hillary Clinton encounters sexism that Bernie Sanders and other men never will – she absolutely does. However, I am challenging those writing and speaking about the election, and about Bernie and Hillary in particular, to broaden their thinking and definition of feminism. Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra wrote a wonderful piece for Alice Walker’s blog where they eloquently sum up this tension within the feminist community. They write:
In the US feminism is often understood as the right of women — and wealthy white women most of all — to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups from this vision, liberal feminists are missing a crucial opportunity to create a more inclusive, more powerful movement.
We have a long way to go before we have the truly inclusive, powerful feminist movement that the authors envision. Electing Clinton won’t get us there. To be fair, neither will electing Sanders. But not shaming women for casting a vote against economic, racial, and myriad other forms of inequality is one place we can start.