Last Thursday, Stanford University announced its new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Reactions on social media and in campus student publications, including The Stanford Daily, have largely centered on the new president’s descriptive identity. He is, as the ten presidents before him were, a straight, white male. The Stanford administration no doubt sought the most qualified person for the job, but how much should a candidate’s descriptive identity have factored into their decision?
Coincidentally, the Democratic presidential primary provides a somewhat analogous situation for many Stanford students to personally answer that very question.
Last Tuesday, for the first time, a woman won the Iowa caucuses for a major political party in the United States. The historic feat, however, was overshadowed by the fact that the margin of victory was narrow, when a year ago it was expected to be quite large. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders differ in many ways, only one of which is gender, but as Hillary Clinton braces herself once again to face the challenge of a male opponent for the nomination, the importance of gender and the role of sexism must be examined.
In the last few weeks, the Bernie Bros have been harshly criticized for rude and misogynistic remarks made on social media toward Hillary Clinton and her supporters. Sanders’s defenders have responded by claiming that the accusations against a small subset of supporters mischaracterizes Bernie Sanders’s campaign and support base as sexist and as predominantly male, when the vast majority of supporters are actually not. While it may seem reasonable to believe, unfortunately, that defense is untrue. All of Bernie Sanders’s supporters are sexist, and so is Bernie Sanders.
Before I am crucified by the left for that assertion, I must say that it is not an accusation. Hillary Clinton and all of her supporters are also sexist — no matter how feminist they claim to be.
As members of a diverse society that has historically associated different groups with different qualities, we cannot escape the subconscious tendency to judge men and women differently. It is wrong to assume that by not consciously and actively participating in the marginalization of certain groups, we are not contributing to the perpetuation of that marginalization. It is impossible not to make implicit judgements based on the groups we fit people into — be it race, gender, sexual orientation or any number of characteristics. The degree to which we let our prejudices (that society has largely forced upon us) influence the way we act is up to us. Fortunately, we have no shortage of opportunities to actively elevate those who have been marginalized.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to discuss issues of gender (much like issues of race) when liberal-minded people do not want to be associated with terms like “racist” or “sexist.” We try to reserve those terms for “bad” people, people who are overtly bigoted or discriminatory. But by distancing ourselves from such terms for our own comfort, we ignore, or absolve ourselves of, the subconscious judgements we all make based on physical differences.
In terms of the Democratic primary race, it is impossible to distinguish one’s support for one candidate over the other from the effects of a gender-biased world. National surveys, as well as Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls, have shown that Bernie Sanders has significantly more support than Clinton among younger voters (that’s us!), both male and female. The fact that younger women are overwhelmingly supporting Sanders is irksome to many older, self-proclaimed feminists, while the expression of such frustrations by older women is similarly irksome to younger self-proclaimed feminists. Younger women don’t want to be told that they should vote for Clinton simply because she is a female candidate, but that is not what I believe is being asked of them or what ought to be asked of them.
Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright were incorrectly interpreted as having suggested that female voters should simply vote for Hillary so that a woman might sit in the Oval Office. While Clinton’s prominent female campaign surrogates should try not to say things that might be so misinterpreted — they might instead work to highlight why the gender difference (along with many policy differences with Bernie Sanders) adds to Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency — it is not wrong for them to be frustrated with Bernie Sanders’ surging popularity among young women.
Hillary Clinton has been in the national spotlight for over 25 years. These older women have seen Hillary Clinton attacked by the media, by the right and by the left (many times for reasons influenced by a gender bias), and yet they see that Hillary continues to fight. In 2016, they do not want to see younger women joining in on the attack without an awareness of the context of Hillary Clinton’s precarious ascension in the political world.
While Clinton’s career has been spectacular in some regards, in others, she has most definitely faltered. She has compromised on progressive ideals, flip-flopped on important issues, and made concerningly close ties with special interests, all in order to “play the system.” But what is oft-ignored is that to be a woman in the system has been and is still pushing the envelope in itself. If tomorrow Hillary Clinton didn’t pay attention to how her hair or clothes looked, if she simply hunched over a podium and shouted for socialist revolution, she wouldn’t be loved by millions; she’d be burned as a witch.
Surely, no one will be voting for Clinton solely because of her gender, and no one should. Until yesterday, there was a female candidate in the Republican primary, so if candidate gender was a selling characteristic for some voters, it could only have been considered after candidate partisanship. Within the Democratic party, women who support Bernie Sanders are not consigning themselves to a special place in hell. They are simply giving greater weight to the other characteristics of the male candidate — characteristics they believe make him more fit for the job. And that’s okay, as long as Bernie Sanders’s supporters recognize the double standard that has forced Hillary Clinton to constantly conform her image to that which might be deemed acceptable.
Contact Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna at ruairi ‘at’ stanford.edu