Melissa Scholke: A feminist undecided for 2016

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 5:27pm

In politics, labels are paramount. I’m frequently reminded of this fact during conversations with one of my older siblings. Our discussions — while usually respectful — often devolve into a clash of policy perspectives between a republican and the family’s designated “bleeding-heart liberal.” More often than not, the phrase is intended as a light-hearted jab, but there’s certainly some truth to the title. My opinions regularly lean a little to the left. However, I can’t deny that the political identifiers my sibling and I attribute to one another, from time to time, have led us to misjudge each other’s beliefs and stances on issues.

Republican. Democrat. Conservative. Liberal. Independent.

With these designations — self-proclaimed or not — come a variety of assumptions. In a highly polarized political sphere, these titles are often — and sometimes poorly — used as societal determinants of which candidate is supposedly best suited to occupy an office, where a candidate should supposedly stand on an issue, how voters supposedly should vote and how they actually will vote. Momentarily casting partisanship aside, the use of labels such as “feminist” and “millennial” have recently created tension among female voters within the Democratic Party.

Addressing millennial women, renowned feminist figureheads Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright recently voiced their concerns about the vast number of young female voters supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

Steinem, viewing female support for Sanders as perhaps an attempt by young women to avoid accusations of a bias toward their own gender, or as an attempt to seem more united or more likable to their male counterparts, stated, “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”

During a Clinton rally in New Hampshire, Albright stressed the need for the younger generation’s support to continue progress toward gender equality by saying, “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done … It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Unsurprisingly, Albright and Steinem’s commentary wasn’t well-received by young female voters. Millennial women viewed the remarks as condescending. Young women interpreted the comments as yet another rendition of a prevalent narrative told by older generations that deems the millennial generation self-absorbed, lazy, unaware and short-sighted. The statements could be viewed as contradictory to feminist values. Feminism — at its core — stresses the importance of a woman’s ability to make her own decisions, and a woman should be able to do so without her individual agency being questioned.

Additionally, whether a woman decides to vote for the only female candidate in the party certainly doesn’t provide a measure of her effectiveness as a feminist. The movement is meant to be intersectional in its practice. Therefore, it’s crucial to recognize that gender is merely one of numerous factors and experiences capable of influencing an individual’s vote.

However, the reactions to Steinem's and Albright’s remarks do highlight prevalent issues within both the political campaign process and the feminist sphere.

It’s understandable why generations of older women and older female political figures are seeking solidarity among female voters. Hillary Clinton faces a unique and undoubtedly difficult situation as a woman in politics and, more importantly, as a woman whose entrance into the presidency would make history.

Clinton, as a result of sexism, faces myriad obstacles that her male competitors don’t. Gender itself is an issue that arose in her first presidential bid and remains one she must carefully navigate in her present campaign. Her status as a woman, if ignored, will likely result in the public viewing her as inauthentic and unlikeable. If she tries to acknowledge her status as a woman, Clinton runs the risk of not being taken as seriously as her counterparts or of taking advantage of her gender to appeal to the female demographic.

Even recently, issues arose around the topic of shouting during campaign speeches. While theatrics and shouting certainly haven’t been in short supply for either party during the campaign process, Clinton’s use of tactics that her male competitors regularly utilize is frequently interpreted by viewers as overly aggressive and off-putting.

The commentary from Albright and Steinem illustrates the existence of a professional, ideological and experience-related gap between generations of women. Women from the older generation may have more experience with these double standards, and research proves Steinem’s point that women professionally “lose power as they age.” Younger women do need to take these factors into account, and acknowledge that they perhaps are privileged in ways their predecessors weren't.

Older generations may be eager to increase concerningly low levels of female representation in government and to further along initiatives to end inequality in a variety of realms. However, they must recognize many members of the younger generation share their aims. The older generation must also be willing to accept that the younger has its own set of experience with inequality and its own set of challenges. For older feminists, perhaps the only viable next step guaranteed to break down barriers is to elect a woman into the White House. Yet younger voters may see alternatives to continue achieving progress. A number of younger women, in fact, claim the reason they support Sanders is because they believe his platform would be more effective for ensuring equality and economic stability

Feminism is not one-size-fits-all. Rather than further exacerbate a generational gap, perhaps the best option for female Democrats is to shift away from labels, expectations and distinctions between older and younger. Instead, voters need to direct their focus to the candidate’s stances on concrete policies.

Clinton inarguably has a vast amount of beneficial executive and foreign policy experience working as the secretary of state, and has placed a large emphasis on the importance of paid family leave. Additionally, she’s argued against the Hyde Amendment. Conversely, Sander’s policies concerning “Medicare for all” and free college tuition are appealing to a generation of women plagued by debt, disillusioned by various aspects of higher education and anxious about achieving financial stability.

Over the years, I grew accustomed to hearing the idea that votes shouldn’t be swayed by political labels or allegiances to a particular party. Voters must now also be cautious of allegiances toward a particular gender or a particular age demographic. During this nomination period, voters shouldn’t place emphasis upon the gender or the superficial likability of the candidate, but rather on the candidates' platforms and on their ability to improve conditions for all individuals and make substantial progress. In the case of this particular liberal and feminist, I’m still undecided.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu