First things first: This is not an endorsement. Consider it more of a relationship guide – this presidential primary, like both Obama campaigns, has exposed fault lines of misunderstanding and opened chasms of dispute. "I thought I knew who you were," we're all whispering at quarrelsome Facebook threads, while attempting not to paste in a mean-spirited meme we'll regret later.
Anyone who assumed that all progressives would rally around Bernie Sanders may now be confused, hurt or shocked to find that it's not always so. But the poll numbers that show that younger Democratic women support Sanders, while older Democratic women are for Clinton, are being oversimplified into a generation-gap narrative, placing a bunch of mean old biddies in one corner and a passel of boy-crazy neophytes in the other. Neither is true, or fair.
A 22-year-old woman has never lived in a world in which abortion was illegal or rape was shrugged off, while a 62-year-old woman may have been earning her own salary in a time when she was unable to get a bank loan or a credit card without a man's permission. And women in between, in their 30s and 40s, have begun to find that while egregious examples of overt sexism have begun to be legislated away,
As digital strategist and Tech LadyMafia founder Aminatou Sow put it in a recent New York Times op-ed ("Why Sexism at the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton," Feb. 20), "A lot of the women I was friends with in college would have never called themselves feminists, but now that we've been in the workplace for 10 years, a lot has changed and they're becoming more radical." According to Sow, they begin to realize "that the work world and the world at large remains a place that's built by men and for men."
Experiencing the wage gap; living with the lack of comprehensive family-leave policies; watching less-qualified men rise through the ranks based on wiggly reasons like "culture fit": These hard-to-prove instances of sexism leave a mark. Living through these frustrations can affect attitudes (and voting preferences) in a way that reading about them simply cannot.
Sanders' stance on so-called "feminist" agenda items like family leave and fair wages is sound. No one could call him anti-woman. But at the same time, feminist reforms are not his top priority. He has a strong and passionately communicated focus on wealth and income inequality, which any progressive woman would support. But you can only have one top priority, and Sanders has an unfortunate record of sidelining "women's issues."
Former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin recounts in an article about her 1986 gubernatorial campaign against Sanders, "When Sanders was my opponent he focused like a laser beam on 'class analysis,' in which 'women's issues' were essentially a distraction from more important issues." As she points out, the difference between supporting women's rights and prioritizing them is how they rank on the agenda. "Is equal pay near the bottom of the list, or is it a priority? Is defense of Planned Parenthood an issue that saves women's lives, or is it only another institution among many?"
Then there's the shush heard 'round the world. Whether or not it proves to be a defining moment in female voters' support for Bernie, Sanders' "Excuse me, I'm talking" at last Sunday's debate was certainly bad optics. It's unfair to make more out of it than what it was – a simple request for courtesy while he was speaking – but every woman who heard those words and saw the accompanying "zip it" finger-wag, Clinton supporter or not, winced. Every woman who's ever been shut down in a meeting, every woman who's ever been mansplained to at a party, every woman who's ever been told to stop being so shrill felt that rebuke in her gut.
Once the primary is past, one hopes that all progressive voters will turn out for the Democratic nominee. I think it's safe to say that Clinton supporters will set aside their disappointment one more time if Sanders wins the party's nomination and vote for him; I just hope that the reverse will be true. Because no progressive of any age wants to live through another GOP administration, especially if that means President Trump.