Bernie Sanders' Female Supporters Want To Break The Gender Barrier... Just Not Now

Many are deeply torn about not being with Hillary Clinton this election.

02/08/2016 09:57 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2016
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post
  • Amanda Terkel Senior Political Reporter, The Huffington Post
John Minchillo/Associated Press
They want to see a woman president. But they aren't sold on Hillary Clinton. Really, though, they just love Bernie Sanders more.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright scolded young women who support Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Saturday for taking for granted the notion of a woman president, the bluntness of her language caught people off guard.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Albright said.

Pledging eternal damnation for a good swath of Sanders' backers seemed a bit harsh. In reality, though, Albright's line was just a repetition of one she's uttered so many times before that it's adorned the side of a Starbucks cup.

The far more interesting aspect was that she directed the remark only toward young female Sanders supporters.

After all, if you stroll to campaign events in New Hampshire, it is quite apparent that there is a robust universe of elderly women who support Sanders too. And they do so despite feeling a deep sense of conflict over potentially not -- as Albright would put it -- seeing the job through.

"I’m a 65-year-old woman. A Democrat. I've always voted Democrat," said Maryclaire Heffernan, a Sanders supporter from Candia, New Hampshire. "It’s a tough one. I voted for Obama twice. So I’ve already not voted for Hillary once ... If Hillary is the nominee I would absolutely support her. However, I am concerned about where we are and think if we don’t think big, we have to stop thinking around the edges or holding the edges in place."

"I do feel bad about it," she added, a tinge of pain visible on her face. "And I have dear friends who would kill me for saying that out loud."

I do feel bad about it. And I have dear friends who would kill me for saying that out loud. Maryclaire Heffernan, 65, a Sanders supporter from Candia, N.H.

At Sanders' rallies here in New Hampshire, you meet plenty of women just like Heffernan. They are emotionally invested in electing a woman president. They know that the glass ceiling needs to be cracked. But they aren't convinced Clinton is the one to do it.

Liz Wilson, 37, of Epping, New Hampshire, is among the skeptics. She believes strongly that "women leadership brings a better approach to the job" and said a Clinton election would "mean a lot to me as a mother." But she also said this from the middle of a monster Sanders rally where both she and her child were wearing baby blue Bernie T-shirts. She was 90 percent certain she'd end up casting her vote for the Vermonter.

"On Tuesday, I will still be torn a little bit," she explained. "I admire experience and service. But Bernie’s approach to policy is more in line with my personal approach.”

Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Madeleine Albright was criticized this week for telling women that they have an obligation to support other women. It was a statement she's made before.

Part of the reason these women have gravitated toward Sanders is, simply, that they view him as a feminist too. And for good reason. At the campaign stop at Portsmouth on Saturday, his loudest applause lines included calls for paid family leave. In a riff about how Obamacare hadn't gone far enough, he made sure to note one distinct accomplishment in the law: that it ended the discrepancy in what women and men pay for insurance. He made a specific ask for men to stand up alongside woman in the cause for pay equity. And as he detailed his plans for job creation, two of his points emphasized sectors that predominantly employ women: hiring teachers and expanding child care services.

It's that approach, combined with an anti-establishment track record, that's won over people like Elise DeMichael, 67, of Milford, New Hampshire. DeMichael said she originally intended to support Clinton; she even had two bumper stickers on her car: one for Clinton and a smaller one for Sanders. But after hearing Sanders speak last spring, she changed her mind.

"I was just blown away by his passion and integrity. And of course, I loved what he said. But it's really hard for me. I know Hillary has fabulous experience, she's worked hard and she's smart, smart," said DeMichael, who was attending a Bill Clinton rally in Milford Sunday just for fun.

Soon, the Clinton bumper sticker was gone, replaced with a second Sanders one.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Hillary Clinton is trying, once more, to be the first female president.

For the Clinton campaign and its supporters, there is a certain level of frustration over these defections. Albright's comment was the most sharply enunciated of that sentiment, but it was hardly the only one. Gloria Steinem, the famed feminist, journalist and political activist, blamed adolescent attraction to boys for the reason that women were supporting Sanders' candidacy (the attraction being to his young male supporters, not Sanders himself). She subsequently apologized for the remark.

Several of Clinton's female supporters, meanwhile, copped to feeling bewildered that their friends weren't swayed by the potential history to be made in her candidacy. Claire Walsh, 69, of Deep River, Connecticut, said that at a recent retreat of Democratic women, she "almost fell off the chair" after hearing all her peers gush about Sanders.

"How can you do this? How can you not support a woman who has been dragged through the mud for so long for so many decades?” she said.

Every female Sanders supporter interviewed for this piece agreed that Clinton has faced sexism and double standards throughout her career. And they also felt that it was because of those roadblocks that she'd had to adopt what some perceive to be not-so-appealing political traits (ambition and firmness being the two terms most frequently used). Their empathy for her was made even deeper by the fact that many had faced sexism in their careers.

"Nothing can be tougher than having your boss tell you you can't have the raise you deserve because the other guys are married and have kids," said Joni Salvas, 74, who was volunteering at Clinton's Manchester office and had worked in manufacturing.

"Hillary has been through that too, absolutely. But not as bluntly as I have," she added. She said she eventually left that field because, "I don't have a military pension, I don't have a penis and I'm getting the hell out of this joint."

But although they related to Clinton, they also felt comfortable compartmentalizing their own experiences from their political choices. Whereas the prospect of having the first female president is ever-present at Clinton's events, it is very much secondary, if not tertiary, at a Sanders rally.

This was especially true among younger women, who, according to the polls, support Sanders over Clinton by large margins. 

"I think that is counterintuitive," said Megan Smilikis, 18, of Massachusetts when asked if female voters should consider gender when weighing Clinton's candidacy. "Feminism isn’t about making a woman the same or better than a man. Just to support someone because she is a woman isn’t what that is about. Just to put someone in office because they are a woman is a step back.”

Just to support someone because she is a woman isn’t what that is about. Just to put someone in office because they are a woman is a step back. Megan Smilikis, 18, of Massachusetts

In the end, the roughly 20 women interviewed for this article all said that they feel a woman would bring a valuable perspective to the White House -- one that has been sorely missing.

"So far the guys have messed it up pretty good," said Leslie, 70, from New York City, who is supporting Sanders and declined to offer her last name.

“I do think that [it would be different to have a woman’s perspective in the White House]," said Ellen Myers, 54, of New Jersey, who is likely voting for a Republican in Tuesday's primary. "If she were of the age of having her period, she would get a whole lot done in a short period of time.”

"It's incalculable the difference it would make to have a woman president of the United States," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told The Huffington Post at a Clinton canvassing kickoff event Sunday afternoon in Manchester, adding, "It's not only that she would be the first woman president, but it's that she brings decades of experience in foreign policy and domestic policy and advocacy."

But for the Bernie backers, there is no real sense of urgency to get that female voice in the Oval Office; no rush to break that final glass ceiling. After all, there is another potential woman president waiting in the wings.

“We will get there," said Meghan Frazier, 45, of Massachusetts. "Elizabeth Warren. She is this close. When she is ready to pull the trigger, it will happen.”