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Hillary’s Missing Girls

Why aren't more young women voting for Hillary Clinton?

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Last week, at the New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall, a woman with five daughters—all millennials, all feeling the Bern—asked Hillary Clinton how she could bring her girls back to HRC’s camp. It was a striking question. There is a very real and staggering lack of support for Clinton among young female voters, but the divide is also generational. In Iowa, 84 percent of women under 30 voted for Sanders; in the New Hampshire Primary, the results were nearly identical—82 percent of women under 30 voted for him, while women over 45 favored Clinton. Where is the feminist love among America’s young women?  

Hillary was the first First Lady who refused to conceal her education and ambition. She insisted on tackling serious policy issues. She tried to fix America’s healthcare woes despite an onslaught of personal and sexist attacks. The right vilified her as a radical leftist whispering in her centrist husband’s ear. She declared unapologetically that women’s rights are human rights; as Secretary of State, she didn’t just promote the advancement of women’s rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy—she institutionalized it with positions and programs that will persist.

She’s one of the most (if not the most) credentialed, knowledgeable, and experienced presidential candidates in recent history. But young women aren’t excited about her. They see her as “just part of the establishment.” Some seem to think she’s “only there because of her husband,” a claim that goes to show her marriage has hurt her at least as much as it’s helped her. Germany, England, Denmark, India, Taiwan, and Argentina have all managed to elect women to their highest offices. It would make sense for young women to feel strongly about electing a woman in America, especially one so qualified and so supportive of women’s rights. But because Hillary has been in the political spotlight so long, they can’t see her candidacy as revolutionary. 

Hillary has spent most of her career trying to dodge that kind of label. Now, her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, has claimed it for himself. There are lots of compelling reasons for young liberals to be excited by Bernie; as my colleague has pointed out, women in particular have much to gain from some of his proposals, like single-payer health care and free public tuition. But it’s still hard to understand why gender isn’t more of a consideration for these voters: Why don’t young women see a woman in the position of America’s commander-in-chief as a critical victory not just for Hillary but for women generally, in America and around the world?

Millennial women don’t shrink from feminism. In a sense, theirs is the first generation to see that once-radical belief go truly mainstream, adopted and endorsed by pop culture icons like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, and Jennifer Lawrence.

According to a recent Washington Post study, 63 percent of young women identify as feminist and 45 percent have taken to social media to express their views on women’s rights. They are informed and active on issues like sexual assault and reproductive rights. They eagerly critique the representation of women in the media. But when it comes to casting a vote, they act like we already live in a post-feminist age. This, despite the fact that women still only make up 20 percent of Congress and 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and still earn only 78 cents to a man’s dollar. As Sheryl Sandberg memorably put it: “If NASA launched a person into space today, she could soar past Mars, travel all the way to Pluto and return to Earth 10 times before women occupy half of C-suite offices. Yes, we’re that far away.”

The thinking among young women voters seems to be that voting for Hillary, at least in part because she is a woman, is not a confirmation of equality. They’re right: it’s not. But we don’t live in an equal world; gender still matters, and matters a lot. Women will only be equal in American society when their presence as candidates and leaders ceases to be remarkable, when they are just as likely to be elected president as men.

Though it’s noble, pretending the world is gender-blind doesn’t make it so. Does it really make sense to ignore gender in America’s presidential election, a race of world-changing significance, when, on the whole, and in most aspects of life, the world doesn’t? If companies didn’t think about gender, they wouldn’t have made any progress in correcting workplace inequities. If colleges didn’t think about race, they wouldn’t create diverse communities. It is strange that a society so self-conscious and reflective about demographic disparities tries to put these aside when it comes to filling the highest and most powerful job in the country. And it’s important to remember that we didn’t put those concerns aside in 2008: Electing the first black president was meaningful for black and white Americans alike. Eight years ago, it would have been preposterous to suggest that voting for Obama in part because of his blackness was a mark against the struggle for progress. Why has our thinking changed when it comes to a woman? 

At a Clinton campaign event on Feb. 6 Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remarked that there’s “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” The comment has been widely derided. Albright’s point was that the work of progress isn’t over; that young women should not be lulled into complacency by the opportunities they enjoy today. Last Friday, Gloria Steinem similarly stumbled over a suggestion that women are flocking to Bernie because that’s where the boys are. This sounded glib, though the online attacks of the “Bernie Bros,” accusing pro-Clinton women of being “bitches” and “voting with their vagina,” suggests that peer pressure might be a factor. Albright’s and Steinem’s statements, however ill-expressed, reflect a larger concern—that young women don’t seem to recognize how powerful the precedent of Hillary’s presidency could be and how far-reaching the consequences could be for women. 

Part of the reason women still lag behind in leadership roles is that we’re still not accustomed to seeing women fill them. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, the majority of Americans do think women are as capable of being good leaders as men. The discrepancy between what we think women can do and what we actually let them do suggests that we still harbor deep biases.

On an emotional level, Americans still aren’t comfortable with women in power. It’s too new and too strange. We don’t have enough models of what it should look like, especially in business and politics. Hillary is conscious of this: At a campaign event last week, she acknowledged the appeal of Sanders’s scruffy, unpolished, indignant presentation, which many young voters read as indicative of his authenticity. “Like that would work for any woman we know,” she laughed. As a female pioneer in this territory, she has to walk a “narrower path”. “It comes across as a little more restrained, a little more careful … but I’ve got to be aware of the fact that I’m trying to be the first woman president of the United States of America, and there has never been one before, and so people don’t have, you know, an image.” But as Hillary herself has observed, a female president could help change this problem for women even in industries far removed from Washington. It might also help men accept women as leaders.

By the end of 2009, after Hillary’s first year as Secretary of State, there were 25 female ambassadors posted by other nations to Washington, the highest number ever. Some observers dubbed this the “Hillary effect.” “Hillary Clinton is so visible”—as Secretary of State, said Amelia Matos Sumbana, the Mozambique Ambassador to the United States—“she makes it easier for presidents to pick a woman for Washington.” 

The tragic irony of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is that she is being punished for having been accepted, against the odds, in circles of real power—for having climbed the political ladder, for having become part of the establishment. She is the girl who insinuated herself into the boys’ club and mastered it. She didn’t have the luxury of declaring herself an independent or a socialist or a revolutionary. Now her greatest liability is her association with the club that once tried to close its doors to her. Perhaps this is just a result of America’s frustration with the governing class. Perhaps it also has something to do with America’s relationship to women in power.