Hillary Clinton needs young women to maintain her status as the Democrats’ inevitable presidential nominee. And Clinton is the most likely candidate in history to shatter the highest glass ceiling in American political life. But lately, her support among women, especially young women, has shown signs of erosion — and recent comments by two leading feminists in support of her candidacy have created a new obstacle, ironically enough.
During a Friday night appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Gloria Steinem, an icon of 1960’s second-wave feminism, said of younger feminists: “They’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.'”
The following day, Madeleine Albright, one of the country’s best known secretaries of state and the first woman to hold that position, told a crowd at a Clinton rally: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” The crowd didn’t seem troubled by Albright’s remarks, and in response chanted “Madam President” — a common refrain for Albright, who used it against Barack Obama when he was running for the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Across social media, however, young women lambasted the two feminist icons for their comments, painting them as condescending and sexist. Some took issue with Steinem’s initial comment, others with her response to the uproar. Steinem said her comments had been “misinterpreted.” Moumita Ahmed, one of the leaders of the Millennials for Bernie movement, told The Guardian , “Gloria Steinem’s statement was the worst kind of sweeping generalization I’ve heard in years about women my age.”
But hearing those remarks from a feminist icon was even more surprising and hurtful. “I identify as a feminist,” said Ahmed. “I’m not sure how she could admit us young women are graduating with more debt and earning less money, then say young women are supporting Bernie Sanders to impress all the boys.”
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Steinem responded to the anger, writing, “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.”
Albright’s comments provoked similar excoriations. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, reporter Janell Ross wrote, “The weekend collection of comments about young women and what they ‘ought to do’ in relationship to Hillary Clinton is, no doubt, insulting.” A simple search of Albright on Twitter revealed widespread anger with her comments. She has made comments about the “special place in hell” since at least 2004, during a panel at her and Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley College. But after Steinem’s appearance on “Real Time,” Albright’s usually uncontroversial comment simply added fuel to the fire.
It is undeniable that today’s feminist movement includes a new generation of millennial activists who have built on the contributions and sacrifice of women like Clinton, Steinem and Albright. But many of these young feminists also focus on class and socioeconomic issues that they consider as important as gender politics.
Affected by the gender pay gap, at a time where America faces the greatest levels of inequality since the Gilded Age, younger women see Bernie Sanders’ focus on socioeconomic justice taking precedence over electing the country’s first female president. That appears to be why millennial women voted for Sanders by a margin of 6 to 1 in the Iowa caucuses. And in New Hampshire, he leads Clinton by two points overall among women voters.
Meanwhile, Clinton has come out in defense of her friends. On Sunday she said told MSNBC’s “Meet The Press,” “Madeline has been saying this for many, many years. She believes it firmly, in part because she knows what a struggle it has been, and she understands the struggle is not over.” Whether or not that will make a difference to the slim majority of New Hampshire women voters now rooting for Sanders remains to be seen. It is possible that Albright and Steinem may have driven a few more voters in his direction.
Photo: Hillary Clinton takes the stage at a “Get Out the Vote” campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder