I had to watch the video twice, and even then it was hard to believe what I was seeing. Gloria Steinem, arguably America’s most consistent public voice for feminism since the 1960s, was trying to explain to Bill Maher why so many young women support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. “When you’re young,” she said, “you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie?’”
It was a frustrating moment for the group she was referring to — the millennial women who are helping to make Sanders a real contender for the Democratic nomination — and the predictable hashtags and rage-tweets proliferated as the story spread through the media. If Beyoncé’s “Formation” video hadn’t appeared just a few hours later, Steinem calling young, female Sanders voters boy-crazy might have become the pre-Super Bowl viral sensation of the weekend.
By now, of course, Steinem has responded to those who expressed frustration with her comments in a Facebook post, writing:
In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics. What I had just said on the same show was the opposite: young women are active, mad as hell about what’s happening to them, graduating in debt, but averaging a million dollars less over their lifetimes to pay it back. Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.
Steinem’s apology reads as sincere and disingenuous at once. She had, indeed, just praised young women’s activism before making the comment about Sanders voters. “I find the young women very, very activist, and they’re way, way more feminist than we were. We were like 12 crazy ladies in the beginning. Now it’s the majority,” Steinem told Maher, in response to a question about whether she agreed with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s assessment that young women are complacent on issues such as Roe vs. Wade. In fact, she went on to say something that really resonated with me and, I’m sure, plenty of feminists half a century her junior: “Gratitude never radicalized anybody. I did not say, ‘Thank you for the vote.’ I got mad on the basis of what was happening to me.” Steinem has a history of working with and empowering younger feminists, and I don’t believe her unfortunate comments about our support for Bernie Sanders negate that.
What she said immediately after that bit about gratitude, though, and referenced in her Facebook message, deserves further examination. Young women today, she said, “are mad as hell because they’re graduating in debt and they’re gonna earn a million dollars less over their lifetime to pay it back. You know, they’re mad about what’s happening to them.”
What comes through in this statement is a tacit acknowledgment that Steinem understands why millennial women are gravitating towards Sanders, whose platform revolves almost entirely around economic justice, from specific policies like making higher education free to his more general obsession with income and wealth inequality. But instead of admitting that and clarifying why she believes Clinton is still the best choice for female voters of all ages, in the interview with Maher, Steinem pivoted to an alarming explanation she may or may not truly believe. Given a second chance on Facebook, she stopped just short of connecting her thoughts on young women, the economy, Clinton, and Sanders.
I don’t think Gloria Steinem helped heal the rift between younger and older feminists — or, because let’s acknowledge that these aren’t monolithic groups, feminists of all ages who support Sanders and those who support Clinton. I don’t think Madeleine Albright helped, either, by telling the crowd at a pro-Hillary rally in New Hampshire, “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,” before repeating one of her most famous quotes: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” I don’t even think what young women need is a condescending, if well-intentioned, history lesson from the great feminist scholar Susan Bordo on all the names Clinton was called in the ’90s.
Meanwhile, although it’s frustrating as hell to see women we hail as heroes belittling and talking down to us, Sanders supporters aren’t helping our cause by disavowing these pro-Clinton voices’ invaluable contributions to women’s lives or calling them sexist, misogynist, and ageist names. (If you don’t believe this is happening, I urge you to search Twitter for either Steinem’s or Albright’s name, plus the word “hag.” Or, hey, take a look at the conversation on Flavorwire’s Facebook post about Steinem’s initial comments.) I’ve watched plenty of pro-Bernie young women shout down these responses (and done some of that myself), but I’ve also seen no shortage of horrifying invective directed at Steinem and Albright from Sanders fans of all genders.
One takeaway from this weekend’s depressing back-and-forth between the Hillary and Bernie camps is that women just can’t win — whether we’re supporting the female candidate or the male one, whether we’re speaking to Bernie Bros or feminist icons, hints of misogyny (blatant, internalized, or miscellaneous other) will inevitably creep in and poison the entire conversation. But I think there’s something much more practical and constructive to draw from it, too: that in order to have a productive exchange of ideas between women and feminists across generations and political ideologies, we all have to get past the stereotypes we have about each other and address real concerns.
This is especially important when we’re talking about young women and the 2016 election. If millennial women are playing an important role in tipping the scales toward Sanders, and they’re doing it because they identify more strongly with the economic issues facing their generation than with any issue related to their gender, then Hillary Clinton and her supporters need to speak to them about that concern. They need to do it without condescending or attacking or assuming ignorance or boy-craziness. Instead of apologizing, I wish Gloria Steinem had started the conversation she got so close to raising.