Hillary Clinton’s “Trouble” with Young Women Reflects Tensions in 21st Century Feminism

young women with bernie sanders signs

For weeks now the political pundits and talking heads have been trying to understand Hillary Clinton’s lack of appeal, indeed more like her total loss, of young women voters, who overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders.


Many theories have been offered, including the belief that young women today don’t see their gender identity as their primary identity, or that young women today don’t feel constrained by gender—gender equality means I can vote for whomever I want to—or that young women believe that gender equality has more or less been attained.  These are the tensions feminists today are grappling with.


Younger women visibly and vocally bristled at the calls by Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright that they must vote for Hillary as a matter of their gender.


Let me be clear about a few things.  Many young women do not identify with the label “feminist”.  I’m not sure Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders identify with the label either. So, this is not a blog about who subscribes to the label, but rather its an attempt to understand why the first legitimate woman candidate in the traditionally “women’s” party is struggling with women and young women in particular.


But first a caveat: As a feminist scholar who has consumed more op-eds and blogs about Hillary Clinton in preparation for offering my own perspective, I agree 100% that our expectations of women are shaped by gender role expectations and that Hillary has to what all women have to do: work twice as hard to get half as much.  She is regularly judged harshly and unfairly.  And, this is not an attempt to do that.  Though quite possibly many of my feminist friends will conclude that I have done the same thing to Hillary: judge her in a way that a man would never be judged.

That is not my intent at all.  I do think any of us, and especially a feminist, has a right and indeed an obligation to ask difficult but fair questions and demand clear, thoughtful answers from anyone we are considering for President of the United States.

I also acknowledge that Hillary Clinton suffers from the same dilemma as Obama.  She cannot let gender define her campaign, and yet if she doesn’t focus like a laser on gender issues, she is criticized for not being concerned with feminist issues.

Though I can’t speak for young women, or even all women my age, I can say that I’ve been struggling to unpack my own lack of enthusiasm for Hillary. Here are some of my thoughts…


  1. Hillary is very second wave…Ok, I intentionally did not use the term “second wave feminist” because I have not actually heard Hillary identify as a feminist, though many feminists, including Gloria Steinem seem to invoke that identity when they urge women to support her. Hillary embodies all of the qualities that Black and multi-racial feminist wrote in reaction to: Hillary is an upper class, well-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, White woman.

And, though women with these various identities can certainly embrace Black feminism and intersectionality, full disclosure: I embody many of these identities and yet embrace and indeed invoke an intersectional approach in my own work, Hillary’s rhetoric doesn’t explicitly evoke intersectionality. Sure, she talks about poverty and she acknowledges that the system of mass incarceration needs significant reform, but she doesn’t explicitly make the link between poverty and mass incarceration and race: it’s POOR BLACK MEN who get locked up and whose families and communities are decimated as a result.


  1. Hillary fails to truly acknowledge her privilege. The pundits and political commentators have argued that part of the resistence to Hillary is that she is an “establishment” candidate.  New York Times op-ed by Frank Bruni argues that this issue is actually much deeper than simply arguing that Hillary is part of the establishment. Hillary’s very existence is one of extreme privilege: she has an elite education, she was educated at the most elite institutions in the world: Wellesley and Yale. But she also rarely talks about the struggles she faced as one of the few women at Yale law school, or the barriers she experienced as a young lawyer or as a mother juggling work and family life.

Hillary’s experiences are not all that different from many women and minorities: they are complex.  Understandably, she doesn’t have the luxury to opine about the discrimination she faced while simultaneously taking advantage of privileges like affirmative action policies that have historically benefitted White women like her.  This narrative won’t play well with young women or minorities.  That said, there are important lessons that can be learned and shared.  Perhaps if she acknowledged these benefits and then vowed to go a step further and ensure that affirmative action will continue to be applied to women of all racial and ethnic groups and to all marginalized folks: men color, members of the LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, Jews and Muslims and other non-Christians and the like her privilege would be less of a negative issue for her.  And she would undoubtedly remind young women that she understands some of what they face and she could vow to work for universal childcare, the protection of reproductive rights.

[I note that Obama faces many of the same tensions: his daughters attending the prestigious Sidwell Friends school was controversial in a way that it would never be for a White president.]

           3. Hillary isn’t talking about dismantling systems of oppression. Any feminist worth their weight in salt knows that gender equality is only possible when systems of oppression are dismantled, and not just patriarchy, but capitalism, racial domination, heteronormativity and the list goes on and on. In this regard, Hillary sounds like a typical “liberal” feminist more interested in reforming Wall Street than Sanders, who talks of dismantling Wall Street and other oppressive class based systems, like access to higher education and health care for all…sounding more like a “radical” feminist. And, though Audre Lorde argues that the master’s tools will never be able to dismantle the master’s house, its Bernie Sanders, not Hillary Clinton, who acknowledges that there is a house that needs dismantling.

I do think Hillary should answer for some decisions she has made that have had disastrous effects of women and children.  For example, the welfare reform she supported when Bill Clinton was president decimated the lives of Black women.  Just as Obama should be called to answer questions about his support for a gutted equal pay act (The Lilly Ledbetter Act) or his rhetoric about mass incarceration that has come with little action.  Americans deserve to ask complex questions about complex issues.  And, we should be able to ask these questions without being labeled as anti-feminist or racists.

This post isn’t about whether I endorse Hillary Clinton or would vote for her (I will).

This blog is about trying to unpack and complicate the reality that Hillary is not connecting with young women.  And, perhaps this blog is also my attempt to ask some difficult questions of Hillary Clinton and hoping that the answers will move me from being luke warm on Hillary to endorsing her enthusiastically.

If I were an advisor to her campaign, a job I would never want, my advice to Hillary would be simple:


  1. Read some Black feminist/intersectional theory! (I can recommend a year’s worth of reading). “None of us is free until all of us is free.”
  2. OWN your privilege instead of trying to sweep it away.  Situate it in a context that allows you to be an ally to those who are marginalized.
  3. Propose policies that will dismantle systems of oppression rather than reform them. Only when the master’s house has been dismantled will true equality flourish.

And maybe, just maybe, talk to some young women and learn about what matters to them.  Sanders’ support among young women appears to be fueled by his ability to speak to issues that are most pressing to them: student loan costs, health care premiums, reproductive rights, universal child care, among other things.

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