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04/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Younger Women Aren't Supporting Hillary

Why Younger Women Aren't Supporting Hillary
Carlotta Cooper

I used to teach freshman English at a local college. If there was one thing I dreaded more than grading essays it was the couple of weeks I was required to spend teaching my students about literary criticism. I derived no joy at all in trying to explain postmodern literary theory to 18-year-olds, only headaches. But it was during these classes, as I taught the different "waves" of feminist criticism, that I became aware that there was a wide gap between some of the ideas I held and what my students believed about women.

I discovered, to my great surprise, that many young women intensely disliked anything to do with "feminism." At first I thought this was a right wing backlash against the feminism of the 1970s and '80s. I thought these girls had been raised by mothers who had been influenced by Phyllis Schlafly and come from ultra-conservative families. But I discovered this wasn't necessarily the case. They wanted equal opportunities for women. They didn't believe women had to stay in the home. They wanted careers. They were outspoken and thought for themselves. What they didn't like were the tenets of what we now call "second wave" feminism -- the feminism that sees women struggling against a male power system. They didn't think that fight was relevant to their lives.

From some of the young women I talk to who support Barack Obama and from the things I read, it seems that many people identify Hillary Clinton with this older kind of feminism, fairly or not. She's a woman who came of age in the heyday of the second wave of feminism, when women were actively fighting for equal rights, when Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was still an influential book and Germaine Greer was making people think with her book The Female Eunuch. "Women's Liberation" was not just a slogan. Even when I was a little girl I can remember women doing many things for the very first time: the first time a woman got into a certain veterinary school, or got into West Point, or went into a certain career. These things were big news at the time. They really were breakthroughs for women.

I have to admit that it's kind of a let-down to find out that young women today don't really consider these things important. They seem to feel that this particular war has been won and there is no more need for feminism, hence the backlash against it with third wave feminism and "post-feminism." Yes, women are people, like we're all "people." But I think it's clear that gender differences exist, in whatever ways we want to measure them. Not only that, but the primaries have brought out evidence that, in the news media, at the very least, there exists some extreme sexism. I don't know what else you could call the attitudes and comments of someone like Chris Matthews on MSNBC, among others, in his remarks about Senator Clinton. It amazes me that younger women are not bothered by these attitudes and comments. I find them extremely offensive.

Many people have become sensitized -- even hypersensitized -- to issues of racism in this campaign, and words and attitudes are being examined and questioned. But sexism seems to go largely unnoticed or, if it is noticed, is dismissed as irrelevant. "That's old. It doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't affect us today." Imagine saying the same things about race! Double standard? Are not both forms of discrimination deplorable? Many Obama supporters seem to feel that if the sexism is directed at Senator Clinton then it's not so bad -- it's even amusing -- because she's fair game. Sometimes I have to double check to see if some comments are actually being made by people in the Democratic party.

Women are still underpaid in our society and there are many subtle forms of discrimination. We should also remember that even if things are comparatively rosy here in the U.S. for the women who support Senator Obama, that doesn't really help the billions of women in the rest of the world who are subject to harm and discrimination everyday because of their gender. I'm not even delving into domestic abuse and violence against women in America which would change this picture even more. The Democratic party doesn't seem to be interested in hearing that message about women right now.

In some places women really are the victims of discrimination and worse -- victims of systematic rape in parts of Africa, victims of the slave trade, victims who work for slave wages in Asia. But I think it's excessive to toss around the term "victim" when discussing Hillary Clinton's supporters. That's simply an attempt to belittle and marginalize the not-so-young women who support Senator Clinton. It's a shorthand term for saying Senator Clinton's supporters are complaining and not falling into line with what the Obama supporters want them to do. It's a way to discourage other people from wanting to be aligned with them.

I hear over and over from young women that they would love to see a woman president but not "this woman." They seem to think she is too tough, too much like a man, that she has somehow become one of the boys in order to beat them at their own game. I honestly don't see what they see. I do see someone tough -- tough enough to be president. There are tough women in the world. There always have been. Plenty of them. What's wrong with that? Are they saying that she is not feminine enough to be president? Oh, boy. I suddenly have this truly troubling image of a woman in the Oval Office leaning seductively on the presidential desk in a short skirt and smiling flirtatiously at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We've really come a long way from feminism if that's the case, haven't we? I can only pray that's not what some of these younger women have in mind for a "properly" feminine female president. I prefer the androgynous pantsuits and a tough as nails woman.

Other people claim that Senator Clinton "plays the victim." That she used her husband's infidelity to elicit sympathy from people in order to win votes. Yeah, right. How many people have you voted for out of sympathy? That wouldn't get me to go to the polls. And, by the way, that affair was years and years ago. How long do you think it would help her? Be realistic. This seems like just another effort to marginalize and define Senator Clinton as a "woman" candidate -- someone that her opponents can label as "Bill's wife." Surely this campaign has shown she is much more than that. She has a record of her own, and more time in the Senate that Senator Obama. She campaigns daily. There's plenty of grist for the mill for those looking for things to bash her with without trying to define her as a "victim." She seems less like a victim to me than almost anyone I can imagine. I don't think she had to be married to the former president to get where she is today. People who believe that may be underestimating her.

(I'm not sure how someone can be both too tough and play the victim, but Senator Clinton gets accused of both.)

I think the fact is that if you like Senator Clinton you will find plenty of good reasons to support her. And, if you don't, you will believe anything you want to about her. Feminism is just another spice in the pot in this election.

Over and over I hear from some of the older women who support Senator Clinton that they believe that the younger women who oppose her and who often dismiss the idea that feminism is relevant in 2008 will someday discover that the playing field is not as level for the sexes as younger women believe. As they become older and encounter discrimination in the workplace, as they become mothers themselves, as they earn some gray hairs, their perspective about feminism might change.

Senator Clinton may represent, for some, a different version of how a woman should handle power. Whether gender is a consideration or not, approximately half the people in the Democratic party seem to like the combination of her abilities and her proposals. No, I do not think people should vote for someone on the basis of gender. Period. Faced with a Condoleeza Rice, a Catherine Harris, or a Harriet Myers (as someone asked me) on the ballot, I would vote unequivocally no to all of them. Vote for the person who, in your opinion, is the best candidate. Vote for the person who would make the best president. Vote for the person who would have the best chance of being elected in the November election.

But many younger women are flailing Senator Clinton for not living up to their image of what a female candidate should be today. That's like having a perfectly good dog and being dissatisfied with it because it doesn't meow and purr. It's too bad they can't accept her for herself and the very good president she might be.

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