By Liz Fields
The Democratic National Committee’s third-ever woman chief — who has frequently been accused of favoring the party’s one-presumed presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton — once said that “just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you’re good for women.” Those comments take on whole new meaning in light of this week’s battle between feminist icons and young women over Clinton’s candidacy.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC’s embattled national chair, was talking about Carly Fiorina, of course, at a time when the Republican presidential candidate was espousing some questionable statements about Planned Parenthood. However, that previously unpublished interview with VICE News in September disclosed a sentiment that is also dawning on an increasing number of women voters, especially young ones, who are converging around the Democratic party’s male presidential candidate rather than its female one.
Over the weekend, this reality hit the Clinton campaign with startling force. It began with what were widely perceived as belittling statements made by two feminist powerbrokers and glass-ceiling smashers. Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright’s support could have boosted Clinton’s waning image with young women, who along with young males are increasingly leaning toward the Bernie Sanders campaign, but instead inflamed an online backlash against themselves and their candidate.
Perhaps the most surprising comment came from Steinem, 81, an icon of the modern feminist movement. Steinem was later forced to walk back her assertion to TV host Bill Maher that young women only supported Clinton’s rival Sanders in Iowa to curry favor with his male supporters.
“They’re going to get more activist as they get older,” Steinem said on the program. “And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”
Steinem’s comments came just a week after the Iowa caucuses, in which women aged 18-29 voted for Sanders over Clinton by a margin of roughly 6 to 1. While Clinton won the overall women’s vote in Iowa, the pendulum may swing the other way on Tuesday in New Hampshire, where Sanders is currently leading Clinton among women voters by eight percentage points, according to a CNN-WMUR poll.
Steinem posted an apology on Facebook Sunday, saying her comment was “misinterpreted” and that young women were more politically active than ever, no matter their support of any one candidate. Although the statement did not make mention of her implication that young women supported Sanders just because the men they had romantic interests in did. Regardless of her apology, Steinem’s strangely off-kilter and tone-deaf statement had already done its damage. Hundreds of women and feminists of all ages, many of whom have long looked up to Steinem, took to her social media accounts to express their disappointment. VICE News spoke to a number of those women, and many of them echoed actress Susan Sarandon’s now-infamous statement that “I don’t vote with my vagina.”
Post by Sunday, February 7, 2016.
Kristie Blickman, a graduate student from Indianapolis, told VICE News that if Clinton became president, it would be “a huge moment in our history,” but that she does not “agree with this type of manipulation.”
“We need to support young women and lead by example, not insult them or act as if they lack judgment and insight,” she said.
Meanwhile, Marissa Bennett, 37, a family therapist intern from Los Angeles who has “revered” Steinem since she was 12-year-old, said she found her idol’s comments “heartbreaking.”
“I wanted to stand up and scream, ‘how do you explain away women over 25, or lesbians Gloria!'” Bennett said. “It feels like Hillary is fighting hard for the ‘women’s vote’, Bernie is fighting hard to do the right thing for ‘we the people, and I support him. I am not just a demographic.”
Julie Blair, 30, who runs her own online jewelry business from Portland, Maine, said she felt “insulted” by the comments. “To insinuate that young women are voting for Bernie because they’re chasing ‘boys’ proves to me that Steinem is right there with Hillary—completely out of touch,” she said.
Related: Being a Woman Doesn’t Guarantee Hillary Clinton the ‘Women’s Vote’ in 2016
A rash of similar comments on social media, prompted organizers form the group People for Bernie, which first coined the hashtag and phrase “Feel the Bern,” to create a petition asking Steinem to walk back the remarks.
“It was not an easy decision to make because I have so much love and respect for Gloria and for all the sisters before me who fought so hard for choice,” said Winnie Wong, the group’s co-founder. “But I was disappointed because she is a teacher and a leader from the second wave (feminist) movement which paved the way for feminists like me from the third wave to organize and fight others who are less privileged.”
Wong added that she ended the petition after Steinem’s apology to support her belief that “women should be unified.”
“That is still how we’re planning to move forward,” she added.
Steinem’s interview was not the only one to turn off women voters over the weekend. Earlier on Saturday, America’s first woman Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, 78, also raised a few eyebrows when she told a crowd at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire that, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Blair noted the double standard in Albright’s statement on gendered support by asking if she would also say the same for Republican women candidates. The reverse could be asked of Wasserman Schultz when she declared her opposition to the GOP’s only woman candidate to VICE News last year, and unwittingly lumped Clinton into the same boat with Fiorina.
“Feminism is simply about men and women having equal opportunities and rights. I’m not sure how this gets translated to ‘If there’s a woman running for office, you’re not a feminist if you don’t vote for her’,” Blair said. “Would Ms. Albright say the same in regards to Carly Fiorina? Did she say the same about Sarah Palin? How about Jill Stein?”
Since announcing her candidacy for the Oval Office last April, Clinton, a self-described “glass ceiling cracker” on her Twitter profile, has enlisted numerous celebrities and women’s groups from Lena Dunham and Gloria Steinem to members of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America to rally for the so-called “women’s vote”. The former secretary of state has emphasized countless times on the stump that her supporters have a chance to make history by electing the first woman president. It’s a sentiment some of her women supporters in Iowa told VICE News would be an undeniable point of pride.
But “the power of that vote is really about party, not so much about the gender of the candidate,” Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said when Clinton first announced her presidential run.
“We’ve seen many Republican women who’ve run for office against Democratic men and there’s been a gender gap in that race,” she said. “The Democratic male is who’s benefitting from the woman’s vote.”
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields